Bangladesh Mahila Parishad

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (Women's Council of Bangladesh) started its journey from April 1970 as a human rights organisation in Bangladesh for the protection of women rights and empowerment and to raise awareness about equal rights of men and women under law and in practice, and to establish a democratic, secular, discrimination free family, society and the state. It emerged initially as the East Pakistan Mahila Parishad with the initiative of poet begum sufia kamal, the competent successor of begum rokeya, pioneer dreamer of women's emancipation of the subcontinent. The organisation was formed through conversation in the backdrop of mass movement and upsurge of 1969 in former East Pakistan. The founder members are all worked as organiser and actively took part in the war of liberation of Bangladesh. One of its first efforts was the publication of the book To the Conscience of People in 1971. The book contained photographs and vivid description that showed how Bangali women were tortured and suffered by the officers and soldiers of the Pakistani army and their collaborators. The organisation was renamed Bangladesh Mahila parishad after the liberation of the country, in 1971.

The organisation started its operation with the key principles of promotion of women's empowerment, development and solidarity with the movement for secular, democratic, and progressive and women's movements in the country. The specific objectives of the organisation are present violence against women; promote political empowerment of women; establish womens' human rights; peace and democracy; ensure women's development and equality through policy intervention; and establish as a Lobby and Advocacy agent. In materialising the goal and objectives of the organisation, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad's diversified activities are implemented through its 12 units- Organisation, Resist Violence against Women and Legal Support, Rehabilitation Center (Rokeya Sadan), Movement, Research, Training and Library, Publication, Mass Media, Health and Environment, Social Welfare, Project and Development, and Networking. Registered locally as a legal entity in 1976, it is also the member of Economic and Social Council of United Nations (ECOSOC).

Any Bangladeshi woman aged of 16 and above belonging to any status/occupation/religion having commitment to women emancipation and supporting the manifesto along with the constitution of the organisation can be its member upon deposit of a subscription Tk. 200. The members are organised into committees at primary, thana and district levels, and then in National Conference and National Councils at the apex. At present Bangladesh Mahila Parishad has 134,000 registered members in 314 thanas of 60 districts of the country. Its activities are managed by a 41-member central committee and a number of subcommittees responsible for conducting programs in diversified areas within the mandate of the organisation.

In 1972, the leaders and activists of the organisation demanded that the government should amend the inheritance law, introduce direct election of women representatives in reserved seats of the Parliament, and also increasing the number of reserved seats for women in the Parliament, capacity building of the elected members, and introduce free education for girls in junior high schools.

In 1976-77, the Parishad organised a mass signature campaign against the dowry system. As a result of its persistent efforts, a law to ban dowry was finally enacted by the government in 1980. Two other most significant Ordinance have passed in Parliament due to the strong mass movement created by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad with the support of united women force in 1983 and 1985. These are Ordinance of Violence against women and Family Court Ordinance 1985. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad also conducted campaign for passing of the Women and Child Repression Act, 2000.

In 1984, Mahila Parishad established a temporary shelter and rehabilitation center- 'Rokeya Sadan' provides accommodation to oppressed and distressed women and girls who are victims of violence and trafficking. The organisation provides Medicare, nutrition counseling, legal aid, conducts vocational training for the inmates of 'Rokeya Sadan' to develop their livelihood skills like sewing and handicraft making, tailoring, leather work, boutique and block and helps implement adult and children educational program, run free clinics. Besides, the organisation has taken initiative to rehabilitee the inmates by providing with job through its network, involve inmates in the income generating project like supply prepared food and snacks, making readymade garments, processing spices, processing halfcocked food, preparing pickle and run a canteen. A sales centre 'Sristi' was established in 1999 in the premises of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad at Segunbagicha for marketing the products prepared by Rokeya Sadan inmates. Till today Bangladesh Mahila Parishad provided temporary shelter to over 1000 women and girls.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad is also involved with 'One stop crisis centre'- a joint Govt., Non-government and donor initiative. Victims are given shelter in Rokeya Sadan referred from the crisis centre.

The organisation also takes part in relief and rehabilitation work for people suffering from natural disasters. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad's relief and rehabilitation and nutritional project for the mothers and children made significant contribution during the time of natural calamities.

The Parishad organises regular meetings (for the members through different sub-committees) workshops, round table conference, mass gatherings, human-chain (issue based), dialogue, and celebrates the red-letter days.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad addresses gender equality as a core development issue since 1970. It is a force to be reckoned with, in lobbying for approval of a bill that is to extend the provision for reserved seats for women in parliament as well as in lobbying for an increase of the number of reserved seats. Members of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad frequently feature as front- page news whilst fighting for women's access to justice or human rights and holding government accountable.

One of the most striking differences that characterise Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, is the extent to which it has become a mass organisation for change at the community and country level, thus effectively expanding the numbers of women connecting to public policy debate including debates on poverty alleviation strategies.

The organisation also conducts legal counseling and literacy program, interact with legal, judicial and medical person and maintain liaison with law enforcing agency.

One of the major areas of activities of the Parishad is its local, regional and national conferences that take place at intervals of 2- 3 years to propagate the ideas, programs and achievements of the organisation and its members, and to steer movements for ensuring better role and place of women in society. The Parishad has a significant role in organising mass movement to resist and reduce Violence against women. It also mobilises public opinion against violence against women, polygamy, child marriage, women trafficking, prostitution, dowry, fundamentalism, terrorism, fatwa. As violence against women emerged as an issue of increasing concern in 1980s, the Parishad started a legal aid program to assist the oppressed women and protect them against violence and also to negotiate their rights. The organisation adopted informal and alternative method of dispute relation arising out of desertion, divorce, dowry, polygamy etc. It is also extends its full cooperation in filing criminal cases rape, murder and trafficking and bringing the culprit to justice.

The organisation offers paralegal training to all women in general. It has submitted for consideration of the government a set of recommendations for adoption in the Parliament. One such recommendation is about formation of a Uniform Family Code. In order to implement this and other legal reforms, the government formed a Law Reform Committee. The Parishad play a significant role for women's development policy. In 2004, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad along with other two NGOs prepared the CEDAW Shadow Report to the UN CEDAW committee. The shadow report identifies how Bangladesh has responded to the CEDAW committees concerns expressed in 1997. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad also conducted training on CEDAW.

The organisation's quarterly bangla megazine 'Mahila Samachar' disseminates news about various activities of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad and other relevant information and articles on women issues. Besides, documentary films are being produced and leaflets, posters, brochures, booklets and greetings cards are printed in different issues. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad maintains constant liaison with the mass media to build up a Media Watch with a view to looking at society through women eye.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad has taken effort to establish right to health in the light of Cairo Declaration. The organisation also works for awareness building on different issues like reproductive maternal and adolescent health, safe drinking water and sanitation, food and nutrition, environmental degradation etc. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad imparted vocational training for skill development for the women in distress for their self-employment. Efforts are being made to have a link with different government and non-government organisation for mainstreaming these women in the process of economic development of the country.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad maintains a strong networking among various organisations in home and abroad. It works in collaboration with national, regional and international networks.

Regionally the Parishad works with International Women Rights Action Watch- Asia Pacific (IWRAW), ABC Nepal, SAMHATI, Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Japanese Women's Committee 2050 (Japan) Center for Women Global Leadership, Aurat Foundation- Pakistan, North East Network (NEW)- India, COVA- India, Federation of Business and Professional Women- Nepal, National Federation of Indian Women- India, International Centre for Ethnic Studies- Sri Lanka (ICES), Durbar- India, Sakhi Resource Centre for Women- India, Nirantar India, Shirkat Gah- Pakistan, JAGORI, SANGAT. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad works with over local 250 organisations and internationally organisations like IWRAW, Global Fund for Women, CONGO, UNIFEM, UNESCAP and UNDP. [Nibedita Das Purkayastha]