The long-awaited Anti-Discrimination Bill 2022 was tabled in parliament on April 5 by Justice Minister Anisul Huq, which was then sent to the Standing Parliamentary Committee of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. , requesting a report within 30 days. The bill complies with articles 27, 28 and 29 of the constitution, which prohibit discrimination based on class, caste, sex and religion, guaranteeing respect for the human entity, equality and dignity. of every citizen of Bangladesh.
Although delayed, this government decision has been welcomed by human rights organizations that have been calling for such a law since 2008. It should be noted that the current government has been responsible for enacting a number of progressive laws, such as the Right to Right Access to Information (RTI) Act 2009, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 2013 and the protection of persons with disabilities.
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The Anti-Discrimination Bill clearly states that no one in the country will be discriminated against on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity, language, age, gender, place of birth , his profession or his “untouchability”. It further states that citizens cannot be deprived of access to services of government offices, statutory bodies and non-governmental organizations, and that no one can be denied employment based on the above.
Parliament passes several laws each session, most of which are related to the functioning of the state or to strengthen control over various segments of society. However, a number of laws have been enacted over the past 15 years that are intended, in spirit, to empower the people of the country or to protect their human and fundamental rights, as enshrined in our constitution. The enactment of each of these laws was preceded by active citizen participation in increasing demand and consistent advocacy by civil society organizations. The same goes for the anti-discrimination law. Human rights organizations and activists have been pushing for its enactment since 2008, using various advocacy and policy influence strategies.
The need for such a law arose through working directly with the Dalit and Harijan communities who, being involved primarily in the cleaning profession, are classified by their lower caste as ‘untouchables’. Through the process of gathering evidence and research, their powerlessness and the daily discrimination they face has been exposed. Whether it’s trying to gain admission to educational institutions, eating in a restaurant, or finding employment outside of their cleaning profession, they are rejected, ostracized, and humiliated, with no chance of legal recourse.
A number of organizations such as Nagorik Uddyog, Manusher Jonno Foundation, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) as well as Dalit community leaders have taken the initiative to create public opinion in favor of the law, which included nationwide consultations, mass mobilization, signature campaign, media engagement, lobbying of policy makers, etc. Meanwhile, there was general consensus that the scope of the law should be broadened to include all segments of society facing systemic discrimination, such as people with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities. , sex workers and transgender people.
Although rights activists have welcomed the government’s decision, there are still some areas of concern. For example, although the proposed law recognizes different forms of discrimination, remedial aspects are absent or too complicated to access. Furthermore, it does not contain any provisions on sanctions as discrimination has not been criminalized. What it offers is more like alternative dispute resolution, which will not serve the purpose, given the extent of the discrimination these marginalized communities face.
The suggested structure for monitoring implementation also does not provide much assurance that an aggrieved person facing discrimination will obtain redress. A national monitoring committee has been proposed, headed by a minister, composed of 15 secretaries or co-secretaries and three to four members of civil society. Moreover, there is no representation of the communities most concerned. There are fears that this will end up becoming another cumbersome and inefficient bureaucratic structure. The parliamentary standing committee is urged to examine these anomalies and consider the recommendations submitted by human rights organisations.
Any law is only as good as its implementation, and therein lies the greatest challenge. There is no doubt that this law will probably meet the same fate as many other progressive laws. While some laws are hastily implemented, even going beyond their mandates, laws that protect human and fundamental rights, those that empower citizens to demand state transparency and accountability, remain. largely unenforced. The same goes for international instruments and protocols that are signed with great enthusiasm but are often ignored or at best partially implemented.
The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 is the result of years of the women’s rights movement. Unfortunately, over the past 12 years, few victims of domestic violence have obtained justice or compensation under the law. The RTI Act is implemented to a limited extent. Although the poor get information about their livelihoods, the law has not been used to challenge larger governance deficits at the national level.
The main problem is the complete lack of accountability at all levels of service delivery. Also, there is no punishment for not doing the job you are supposed to do. The most glaring example of this is the attempt to obtain justice for women victims of violence. From filing an FIR to performing medical tests to the time it takes for an investigator (IO) to submit a report, the entire process is a travesty of existing rules, policies and procedures.
Another important point to highlight here is the inability of civil society to monitor the application of the law. Somehow, the energy and enthusiasm evident when promoting the enactment of laws is lacking when it comes to monitoring implementation. Often activists turn to other pressing issues, thinking their job is done. It must be remembered that legislation is only the first step on a long road towards securing the rights of people, especially those who are traditionally marginalized and powerless.
Finally, a law is only one of the tools to guarantee rights. A much stronger commitment must be made to build a society without discrimination or exploitation where everyone has the same right to live in freedom, dignity and security. No law can guarantee this unless we as a society work on issues of social harmony, social justice, celebration of diversity and acceptance of difference. We still don’t know if the anti-discrimination law will meet the aspirations of millions of people who face discrimination every day. But this is only the first step; the rest will depend on our vision of a humane and just society.
Shaheen Anam is the Executive Director of the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF).