Published in The Independent on 3 December 2011

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. Photo courtesy of the Australian High Commission, Dhaka

During a three day visit to Bangladesh, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick advocated her belief that, “Investing in women will have a greater impact on the global economy than almost anything else.”

“It will also build security and peace,” she said during her address as keynote speaker at the conference, “Recognising gender – at home, work and abroad,” held on 29 November at the BRAC Centre in Dhaka.

Broderick said that violence against women and sexual harassment is widespread in Australia, and indeed worldwide.  A study by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 22 percent of Australian women had been sexually harassed in the workplace, and 1.2 million women over the age of 15 had experienced domestic violence.  Tragically, Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal women experience domestic violence at 35 times the rate of non-indigenous women.

Broderick said the commission’s study concluded that sexual harassment and violence against women costs the national economy $13.6 billion a year, mostly in terms of associated medical costs and loss of productivity in the workplace.

Acknowledging the fact that sexual harassment is a major problem in both Australia and Bangladesh, Broderick noted that in Bangladesh, private companies lack policies aimed at preventing it.

“I think that’s an area Bangladesh could potentially look into – and we have some good learning to share,” she said.

When Broderick said that up until 1966, Australian women were forced to resign from their job after marriage, the audience’s collective shock was audible.

Broderick said poignantly, “As a federal commissioner with two young children, I’ll never forget that this opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without the women’s rights movement.”

She applauded Bangladesh’s generous maternity leave schemes, which were developed well ahead of those in Australia.  Up until 2010, Australia and USA were the only OECD countries without paid parental leave.

However Broderick cautioned, “Strong laws are not enough to create gender equality. Cultural change and change at the family level is also required.”

Supreme Court Barrister Sara Hossain concurred.

Describing the national women’s policy as “disappointing”, Hosasin said, “There needs to be a loud and clear demand from women.  Positive change may not occur in the courts, as our judiciary is conservative.  A movement must be built on a different public level.”

Hossain’s address outlined Bangladesh’s reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for reasons of personal law.

This means that Hindu women have no right to divorce whatsoever, she said.

And while a Christian male can obtain a divorce by proving infidelity, a Christian woman must prove both infidelity and cruelty or bestiality.

In Australia, Broderick confirmed that similar reservations to CEDAW exist for religious institutions.

However the State Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Dr Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury said, “The fundamental rights in our constitution are a strong building block for gender equality.”

Between 26 and 30 November, Broderick met representatives from government and non-government organisations and visited Netrokona in northern Bangladesh to witness the positive changes being made at the community level.  Yesterday she launched Australia’s support for the Acid Survivor’s Foundation.

The visit was hosted by the Australian High Commission to promote an exchange of successful gender development initiatives in Australia and Bangladesh.

Speaking exclusively to The Independent, Broderick said, “I’ve been really impressed by the female activists I’ve met in Bangladesh. There’s a really strong group of activists here – it’s impressive.”

However Broderick knows only too well that achieving gender equality is difficult anywhere in the world.

She explained, “Often, the changes required to achieve gender equality go against deeply held cultural norms.  When you start challenging the local “sacred cows,” it’s difficult work.  But I felt really inspired here, because there are many women in Bangladesh who are fully prepared to lay out what those sacred cows are, and to start asking questions and prompt a national debate.”

Overall, Broderick believes Bangladesh is “doing a lot to promote gender equality.”

However she concluded, “Like every country in the world, more could be done.”