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Cablegate: Women's Issues Ambassador Marks Bangladesh's Progress And

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1. (SBU) The recent visit to Dhaka by Ambassador-at-Large for
Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer highlighted the need for
Bangladesh's leaders to work together more cohesively to further
advance the status of women here. Ambassador Verveer's meetings
with government officials, civil society leaders and businesswomen
demonstrated that women's lives have greatly improved in the last 30
years. However, efforts are still needed to protect women's rights
and enforce legal protections for women, increase economic
opportunities, improve health conditions and foster political
empowerment. Ambassador Verveer found no dearth of ideas for
addressing these challenges; one of the main obstacles to progress
on women's issues appears to be a lack of cohesion among the many
actors working on women's issues.

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Opposition leader outlines past progress

2. (SBU) Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne
Verveer visited Bangladesh November 10-12 and discussed the status
of women with a range of actors, including government officials,
Parliamentary leaders, members of civil society, aid beneficiaries
and businesswomen. (NOTE: We will report septel on meetings with
the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. END NOTE.) Begum Khaleda
Zia, Leader of the Opposition and head of the Bangladesh Nationalist
Party (BNP), outlined the progress made on women's issues while she
was Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006.

3. (SBU) After Ambassador Verveer noted the creativity and
innovativeness of Bangladesh's civil society, including
non-governmental organizations like BRAC and Grameen, Begum Zia
responded that employment and education opportunities for women and
girls in Bangladesh increased under her leadership. She noted that
education was an important tool for preventing child marriage, which
is still a significant problem in Bangladesh. Providing food
incentives such as rice and wheat to poor families to keep their
daughters in school was a unique way to address the problem. She
also mentioned technical training institutes for girls that started
under her regime. She listed more jobs and health care as her top
priorities for women. Ambassador Verveer and Begum Zia also
discussed global climate change and food security, including USG
initiatives in these areas; they agreed women could play a strong
role in addressing climate change and food security in Bangladesh.
Begum Zia's colleagues pointed out that if problems related to
natural disasters, climate change, and starvation persisted, how
could we focus on women's empowerment? On climate change, they
lamented the lack of preparedness for earthquakes in Bangladesh.
They also noted that they are looking to their developed partners
for technical assistance on climate change.

Women MPs welcome a greater political role

4. (U) At a lunch with women Members of Parliament, Ambassador
Verveer listened to the stories of the legislators, most of whom
were serving in Parliament for the first time. One MP from the
opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party spoke movingly about her
experience transitioning from the "kitchen to Parliament," noting it
was the first time she was speaking to a crowd like this. She ran
in her husband's place, since he was ineligible to run, but her tale
showed she was more than just a figurehead. She described how she
took her experience discussing politics over the kitchen table with
family members and constituents and translated that into a
successful campaign for Parliament. Verveer urged the MPs to use
their shared experiences as women to forge ties across political
parties so that they could work together on issues of importance to
women including education, health and economy.

USG contributing to women's health care

5. (U) Ambassador Verveer highlighted the importance of maternal
and child health in development when she visited a community health
clinic supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID). At the Smiling Sun clinic, one of 319 such clinics
throughout Bangladesh, Ambassador Verveer met mothers with their
newborn babies, born by Caesarian section. Clinics like Smiling Sun
ensured that women with high-risk pregnancies had a better chance of
delivering healthy babies, Verveer observed. Verveer also discussed
how the clinics community health workers could do more to educate
mothers about preventive health measures and explored ways to reach
out to the vast majority of women who actually are not served by
clinics or hospitals and are usually confined to home deliveries.

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Progress needed on women's rights

6. (SBU) Civil society leaders told Ambassador Verveer that while
Bangladesh had made great strides in improving the lot of women,
much more needed to be done to guarantee womens' rights here. At a
roundtable discussion with leaders from human rights
non-governmental organizations, the leaders agreed that the legal
framework protecting women was strong in Bangladesh. Enforcement of
these laws was weak, however, according to round table participants.
Many of the participants agreed that there was a serious lack of
political will and the judiciary and police needed reform. They
noted that the government needed to be held accountable and more
women were needed in politics at the local level. They said many
women lacked access to the judicial system and must rely on informal
arbitration by village officials who might be uneducated or
prejudiced. Many pointed out that family laws needed to be modified
and noted the challenges in implementing certain articles of UN
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW).

7. (SBU) Representatives of labor groups told Ambassador Verveer
that Bangladesh's booming apparel industry provided many job
opportunities, but wages and working conditions remained
unacceptable. Workers often had no maternity leave, no set minimum
wage and faced sexual harassment. There were only a few unions in
the garment industry and if they exist, since they were headed by
men, it was very challenging for women to receive assistance. The
labor leaders said garment workers lacked adequate representation,
which made it easy for individuals with political or criminal
motives to stir up worker unrest. According to the labor code,
unions have to register with the government to form a labor union,
which the government is often reluctant to accept. According to the
activists, another challenge in addressing these injustices is that
the government and factory owners are often the same, since over
thirty members of Parliament own garment factories.

8. (SBU) Roundtable participants were short on ideas for ways civil
society could mobilize to achieve more progress on women's rights;
they merely said the GOB needed to do more. The head of a shelter
for trafficked women and children did praise the GOB for its
commitment to tackling trafficking in persons as the national and
local level.

Grameen Bank continues its success

9. (SBU) A visit to Grameen Bank proved that micro-credit continues
to thrive in Bangladesh. Ambassador Verveer met with more than 30
women and students, including young men, who had transformed their
lives thanks to Grameen credit. Many of the previously-destitute
women had worked with Grameen for the last 20 years, starting with
tiny loans equivalent to less than $20 to buy cows or sell rice.
Now their loans exceed $1,500, and the women have built and
furnished homes, helped their husbands find work, and expanded their
businesses. Some of the women participated in a renewable energy
program called Grameen Shakti, which is supported by the U.S.
Government through USAID. One woman, a tailor, described how her
home-based solar energy system ran lights, a cellphone charger, an
oven and a television. The system allowed her to work from home and
take on more business since she could now work at night. When
Ambassador Verveer asked who among these Grameen loan recipients had
cellphones, everyone raised their hands. All the women also had
their own savings accounts with the equivalent of at least $800 in

10. (SBU) The students told Ambassador Verveer that thanks to
Grameen education loans they now studied at college and hoped to
start their own business, enter government service or continue their
studies abroad. These students said they would not be in college
without Grameen, since their parents, most of whom were uneducated,
could not afford to pay for higher education.

Entrepreneurs say economic opportunity key to success

11. (SBU) A lunch with the Women Entrepreneurs Association of
Bangladesh illustrated that businesswomen here are not just active
at the micro level. Women working in the fields of handicrafts,
export-import, garment manufacturing and animal health agreed that
economic opportunity was key to women's empowerment. The
businesswomen told Ambassador Verveer that access to credit and
markets, as well as technical expertise remained among the
challenges they faced in growing their businesses. Many of them
said they were only able to succeed thanks to the support of their
family. They also registered concerns about extremism, too much

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government interference in business and poor implementation of laws.
Several participants agreed that women needed to "speak with one
voice" when lobbying for change.


12. (SBU) Ambassador Verveer observed that Bangladesh had changed
greatly, mostly for the better, since her first visit here in 1995.
(NOTE: She accompanied then-First Lady Hillary Clinton to Bangladesh
on that occasion. END NOTE.) The range of women activists and
their ideas was impressive. As often happens in Bangladesh,
however, fragmentation of individuals and groups appears to prevent
good ideas from becoming reality. Government, business and civil
society need to work together better to continue Bangladesh's
substantial progress on women's issues. Mission Dhaka will continue
to look for ways to facilitate concrete actions, particularly in
priority areas like food security, global climate change, health and

13. (U) S/GWI cleared this cable.


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