A huge cultural change means that more educated women are prepared to be self-reliant
Students take a class at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong in this 2017 file photo. More Bangladeshi women are turning to education as a way of getting decent jobs and being less reliant on men to support them. (Photo by AFP)
Like most Bangladeshi women, Susmita Das (not her real name) dreamed of a good job, happy family life and motherhood after completing education.
She is the fourth of five children of a middle-class Baptist Christian family in Khulna district in the south of the country. All along, their low-income parents struggled hard to feed them and pay for their education.
“I have completed a master’s degree in social work and, for most of my higher education, I supported myself through private tuition as my parents couldn’t pay for me,” Susmita, 30, told ucanews.com.
When Susmita, then 22, got married to a banker eight years ago and started a job with a development agency within a year, she thought she had reached the threshold of her dreams.
She was making a decent income that helped support her husband’s family. In the next five years, the couple had a son and Susmita became pregnant again.
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But Susmita’s job required her to travel various places across Bangladesh, which her husband didn’t like. The issue started affecting their conjugal life.
“I was very honest and dedicated in both my personal and professional lives. Yet my husband became suspicious about me that I might be having affairs with my male colleagues. He put me through various forms of physical and psychological abuse day after day,” Susmita recalled.
Things reached boiling point when her husband asked her to quit her job and stay at home.
“I have struggled my whole life and got an education so that I could get a good job and stand on my own feet. My husband was not only disrespectful but he also wanted to snatch away my freedom and the dream that I had longed for. I couldn’t take anymore,” she said.
In 2016, Susmita filed a divorce case in a family court and was civilly separated. She was six months pregnant with her daughter at the time. Both children have been staying with her since then.
Susmita says she is glad to have left behind her unhappy marriage. She can take care of herself and her children, but she does not intend to remarry.
“I know that all men are not like my husband, but my traumatic experience of conjugal life will never wash away from my memories. I would never be able to trust a man and I am highly unlikely to get married again,” she said.
Such cases are increasingly common in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country where the social system is largely conservative and male-dominated and marriage is considered an inseparable holy institution.
In the past, most women, both in urban and rural areas, preferred to stay put in unhappy and unequal marriages despite the scourge of abuse and humiliation. But the situation has been changing in recent times.
According to a 2018 study by the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the number of applications for divorce has increased by 34 percent in the past seven years, and in most cases applicants are women, especially in cities.
In capital Dhaka, about 50,000 divorce applications were filed in the past six years or an average of one case every hour, the study found. In Chittagong, a port city in the southeast, more than 2,500 divorce cases were filed in the first six months of 2018, it said.
The rising divorce rate is a startling indicator of major social and behavioral changes in Bangladesh, says Shah Ehsan Habib, a sociology professor at the University of Dhaka.
“Our society at large is male-dominant and subjugates women. But things have drastically changed over the years. We have qualified women in almost every sector. They are educated, qualified and hold high esteem for themselves. They want to make decisions for their own lives and they hate when their husbands treat them as objects like in the past,” Habib told ucanews.com.
The trend has gained strength from the increasingly high participation of girls and women in education and the labor force.
Education and empowerment
According to UNICEF, Bangladesh records nearly 100 percent primary school enrolment every year and more girls go to school than boys.
Women’s participation in the labor force was more than 34 percent in 2016, up from only 4 percent in 1974, according to 2016 survey by the BBS,
“Women are more educated, self-reliant and vocal against injustice and abuse. Maybe a woman could strive to stay in an unhappy marriage two decades ago, but not anymore. She has better options and can have a free and dignified life of her own today,” Habib said.
UNICEF ranks Bangladesh fourth in prevalence of child marriage. In 2017, about 59 percent of girls got married before they were 18 and about 22 percent were married before 15.
Sociologists believe the high prevalence of early marriage leads to unequal unions, conflict and separations.
About 87 percent of married women in Bangladesh have been victims of domestic violence, according to a United Nations Population Fund-sponsored survey in 2014.
“The scenario about domestic abuse has not changed much, although women have progressed significantly over the years. Today women decide to part ways when the level of abuse goes beyond tolerance,” said Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the women’s desk at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.
Christian men want to marry educated women but do not want them to do jobs and become self-reliant, she said.
Costa says that while women are less dependent on men and increasingly self-reliant, both men and women have a lack of tolerance and forgiveness.
“The situation of Christian marriage is not very different from that for non-Christians. I have seen applications filed in marriage tribunals and they are full of suspicion, blaming and hatred for partners,” she said.
“There is a serious lack of love and respect among couples who proceed to separation. Disputes over trivial matters end up in split-ups, which is disappointing.”