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Better lives for Bangladeshi Women - Mark Lowcock
BANGLADESH'S elections were a great achievement: free, fair and even festive, with a massive voter turnout. But, as I return to this remarkable country after four years, what sticks in my mind are the vivid images, flashed across our screens, of women queuing patiently to vote on that chilly December day. Of the 82 million Bangladeshis that were registered as voters, 41 million were women: hugely impressive for any country.

This was a powerful symbol of women's advances in Bangladesh during the last 10 years. And there's more. Birth rates have halved, the gender gap in infant mortality and education has narrowed or closed altogether; micro-credit has improved both the status of women and their earning potential. Large numbers are finding opportunities in garment factories. To meet the potential of half a nation's citizens, these are important steps. But this is a long staircase to climb. It's a harder climb when, in Bangladesh one woman dies from childbirth every hour of every day; when girls in Bangladesh are five times more likely than boys to drop out of school at grade one. This potential is untapped while half of all women remain illiterate and women trail dismally in pay rates and property-ownership: one in five female-headed households in Bangladesh earns less than Tk 28 per person per day.

And the blight of violence against women grows uglier. That it is commonplace does not mean we can turn a blind eye. It's perhaps the most widespread and tolerated denial of all human rights: scarcely credible that in the 21st century, among women aged 19-44 worldwide, domestic violence accounts for more death and ill-health than war, traffic accidents or cancer. In the UK one in four women will be the victim of domestic violence at some point in their lives. It claims the lives of two women in my country every week. And it costs those victims' employers and the state in the UK billions of pounds a year. In Bangladesh, fewer than half of all women report feeling safe going out alone, even in their own neighbourhood. And in a recent study more than half of women questioned in Dhaka reported at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Let us be in no doubt: the punching, the kicking, the raping, the isolating, the mocking and the killing that shames us all is the world's most substantial and insidious brake on human development. Change can come.

Last Wednesday I met survivors of acid violencea particularly appalling and horrifying crime. The Acid Survivers Foundation (ASF) is doing amazing and inspiring work providing support to thousands of women and children who have been victims. Equally important is tackling the causes and dealing with the perpetrators. Acid attacks have fallen significantly in recent years in Bangladesh as a result of the work of the ASF, supported by the media, the justice system and government leaders. Other gender problems can be tackled in the same way.

A democratic government with a convincing mandate can achieve a lot. Promoting women to prestigious positions and increasing the number of reserved seats in Parliament are important steps to raise the profile of women in Bangladesh. Delivering on the National Policy on Women's Empowerment, approving the new Domestic Violence Bill and ensuring that victims of violence achieve fair justice and equal treatment will help women to realise their rights as human beings and citizens of this country. But there's more for us all. The British government will make better lives for women and girls a priority in our partnership with Bangladesh. Can Bangladeshi women expect that there are more changes for the better on their way? Mark Lowcock is Director General, Country Programmes in the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and is responsible for DFID's programmes in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Latin America.