How to subordinate women in the 21st century
“It all goes back to the status of women. We must not treat women and girls as commodities. They are human beings with rights and privileges.” –Babatunde Osotimehin, Director of the United Nations Population Fund, 2014
Henna art sets the new bride apart from her family. Beautiful reddish-brown patterns bloom from her fingertips, swirling across the back of her hand before becoming hidden beneath her sleeve. She wears a bright dress that covers her from wrist to ankle. The bridal veil that conceals her hair and chest is not a throwback to earlier times, an ornament to be worn for the occasion then packed away with other keepsakes. For her, the veil is a well-known article, one that has adorned her since puberty, one that she will retain throughout her life, as familiar to her as her own skin.
In the Rohingya tradition in South Asia, the life paths of women and men are drastically different from one another. The community practices strict gender segregation at the onset of puberty, relegating women and girls to the confines of the home and men to the public sphere. In customary Rohingya homes, tall bamboo fences are built as a perimeter around the houses, allowing the women to do their work in relative privacy. When women move from house to house, they do so heavily veiled, hurrying along to the safety of their destination. And so the public journey of our young bride from her childhood home and into her husband’s household may be a novelty for her. Her parents might have been able to provide her with a dowry, often of gold earrings or bracelets. She will guard this wearable wealth seriously, as it provides her with a measure of stature she could not otherwise retain.
The bride will likely be quite young. From the time of her first menses, she is culturally of age to be married. The groom will likely be young as well, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. Marriages are generally arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom. Ideal Rohingya matches occur between neighboring villages, with the hope that the groom has never set eyes on the bride until they meet to exchange vows. It is likely that neither will have ever attended a reproductive health class.
Rohingya families tend to be very large, as children are viewed as a precious gift from God. The men shoulder a great deal of familial responsibility, taking on the protection of and providing for the family. Ultimately, men make many of the family decisions unilaterally. Women are responsible for rearing the children, cooking, and cleaning. Family planning is rarely exercised, though attitudes are changing among the younger generations. Unfortunately, domestic abuse is common, and the practice of polygamy further complicates life for these women.
Many factors such as lack of education, marriage before maturity, and drastic gender segregation contribute to the overall disempowerment of Rohingya women. There is a sharp disparity in a culture which maintains that a girl is mature enough to be married and bear children, but that she also lacks the capacity to receive an education or have control over her own body. However, we believe that the rising generation has the power to shift some of these traditions and embrace the power and potential of their women. The availability of mobile phones and the resulting exposure to different cultures and views of women is making a mark. Rohingya youth, especially young men, are beginning to be open to more equal partnerships.
At LETS Empower, we have a plan to help them make that leap. With a mission to touch every home across the globe, we are opening up the conversation around fertility to bring intentional connection to couples and create sustainable families. We know we can’t balance every inequality. But that won’t stop us from trying.
Help us spread awareness by purchasing a LETS Bracelet this holiday season. Your patronage fuels the work we do on the ground, allowing us to teach fertility empowerment to vulnerable women and men.