By Julia Niblett, Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh
When Maneja was attacked with acid, her dreams of a bright future faded. Ostracised from her community, traumatised by violence and shamed by the disfigurement, she retreated to an isolated existence, living rough and unable to earn enough to feed her son and herself.
Since moving to Bangladesh eight months ago, I have been deeply moved by stories such as Maneja’s. There has been enormous economic and social progress in this country over the last 20 years, but inequality remains an issue, particularly when it comes to women and girls.
There are many courageous Bangladeshi women leading and advocating for empowerment, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself. Yet, in a deeply religious and patriarchal society, too many women and girls continue to face a brutal reality. A 2015 report by the country’s Bureau of Statistics found that 50 percent of the 20,000 women interviewed had been physically tortured, while 27 percent said they had been sexually abused.
The Australian Government works with a range of partners to address issues of violence and advance the status of women in Bangladesh. Specifically, we support the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a non-governmental organisation that rehabilitates victims of acid attacks and raises awareness about the impact on the individual and the community. Since 1999, ASF has helped close to 4,000 victims to access medical support, psychological counselling and skills-based training. Australian funding directly supports programs that build the skills of survivors, increasing their income generating opportunities.
Alongside the support to ASF, Australia has a strategic partnership funding arrangement with BRAC, which is not only the world’s biggest NGO but ranked number one NGO in the world for the second year in a row by Geneva based NGO Advisor. Addressing violence against women is a key focus for BRAC. One key role it has is to manage the secretariat of the ‘Girls Not Brides’ alliance, a global partnership of over 600 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage in Bangladesh and enabling girls to fulfil their potential.
BRAC has the largest paralegal volunteer program in the world, delivering legal aid services to survivors of gender-based violence through over 400 clinics across Bangladesh. BRAC is also working with the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs to operationalise the Government’s national Violence Against Women database.
With 52 per cent of girls marrying before they turn 18, Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in South Asia and fourth highest in the world. To help keep girls in school (and data shows that this delays the age of marriage), the Australian Government supports the Bangladesh Government’s Primary Education Development Program, reaching 20 million school children across the country, to improve completion rates (especially for girls) and learning outcomes.
The Australia Awards program has seen strong take up from both men and women, with 50% of scholarships in each intake awarded to women. In 2017, over 150 study opportunities are expected to be offered, supporting greater leadership opportunities among Bangladesh’s growing female workforce. The Australia Awards ’Women in Leadership Alumni Network’, launched in 2015 is also helping women alumni connect across the region to strategize on leadership in their respective sectors and organisations. I am proud to participate in discussions and share stories with this group.
Our Dhaka office has placed gender equality at the heart of its development program, its advocacy efforts and its public diplomacy activities. To mark 16 days of activism against violence – with a focus on raising funds for ending violence against women – the High Commission hosted a Craft Bazaar where women like Maneja, and others supported by ASF, came and sold their goods. These women are true survivors. Meeting with them and supporting their artistry was a great honour.
A key target under the Sustainable Development Goals for gender equality is the elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls by 2030. This is a very powerful and challenging mandate for the world to deliver. I am proud to say Australia is taking up this challenge head-on in Bangladesh. Working with these organisations and inspirational women is a small but critical step in the right direction.
Julia Niblett was appointed as Australia’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh in July 2016. She is a senior career officer with DFAT, having previously held the positions of Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Maritime Bilateral Branch; Mekong, Philippines and Myanmar Development Branch; and Asia Strategies and Partnerships Branch in the former AusAID. Ms. Niblett holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from the University of Sydney and a Graduate Diploma of International Law from the Australian National University.