"Empowering" Bangladeshi women is no easy task
Suraiya Begum's story
Suraiya Begum hastily fed a few ducklings and chickens before rushing to the fields to bring home her cattle.
"It will be dark soon. Get the lantern ready," she called to her young daughter as the sun began to set, leaving a red glow in the western sky, partly covered in clouds.
Suraiya's husband, who runs a small grocery stall in a village market, says he relies on her for the family's welfare.
"She is the cornerstone of my family. She takes care of myself, our children, poultry and cattle," said Abdul Bari, the father of two boys and a girl.
Suraiya says she is happy and proud to be able to do her best for the small farming family. "I have no other cravings. This is my life."
The family live in the quiet village of Maniknagar, perched on the bank of the river Meghna, about 150 km (90 miles) east of capital Dhaka, and can be reached both by road and river.
Yet Suraiya feels distant from the city and almost unaware of what is happening there. She seems apathetic to all the changes the authorities are planning to "empower" women in the male-dominated country.
Although women have occupied the top executive positions in Bangladesh, most women in this Muslim country of 130 million remain traditionally backward and poor.
The names of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia and her rival, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, are familiar to almost everyone.
But if they have done anything to raise the status of other Bangladeshi women, either in their daily toil or within their families, it is not immediately apparent.
"Khaleda and Hasina have been in power for about one and half decades," said a female teacher, who asked not to be named. "They have changed their lives and raised their popularity by giving people hope...but we remain as we were generations ago."
"The only difference I have from my mother is that I have some education and a teaching job in a primary school," she said.
"But back at home, I do exactly what my mother did, and thanklessly carry the burden of the whole family."
Is women on the street aware?
The two village women are barely aware of political moves in Dhaka to reserve 45 seats for women in parliament, which the government says is a great stride towards empowering women.
"I know nothing about empowerment. What is it?" asked Suraiya, 37.
The teacher said she was aware of the move. "But frankly speaking, we are not interested...because many things have happened in the past, yet have made no impact on our lives."
Bangladesh's 300-member parliament now has only seven women legislators, including Khaleda and Hasina. Women still have an insignificant share of government jobs, officials say.
Womens' rights groups object to the planned setting aside of parliamentary seats, arguing instead for women to be allowed to fight elections directly and to challenge men.
"We want direct election. We oppose hand-picking of women legislators by parties in parliament," said one group leader, Maleka Begum.
A Bangladeshi's average annual income is $376. Half the country's people live in poverty and 4.5 percent of children die before the age of five. But there is a ray of hope - girls' enrolment in schools has nearly doubled over the last 10 years.
In Search of Light
Back on the farm, Suraiya's daughter has lit the kerosene lantern and a wood-fired oven to cook rice.
"I am teaching my daughter to do household work because I am afraid her life will be no different from mine," Suraiya said. "But my wish for my girl is for her to become a graduate, find a job and walk out of the darkness in her life."
That wish could become a reality, housewife Mariam Begum told Reuters, now that the government has made education for girls free up to 12th grade in public schools and colleges.
"Many poor families now send their daughters to schools and hope they will come out successful, and find a job," she said.
But in the rural areas, where male dominance and chauvinism are still widespread, the real problem lies within the four walls of almost every home.
Despite legal curbs, girls are still married off below the age of 18, become mothers quickly and contract various diseases.
They may be pulled out of school suddenly, despite their protests and those of their mothers. In most cases, the decision lies with the male relatives.
"They (father and brothers) often push us into hell," said 15-year-old Shafia, a ninth-grade student, who is fearful of what early marriage could mean for her.
"Parents cannot be blamed always." said village elder Mohammad Jalaluddin. "They are usually poor and find it difficult to rear their children properly."
"Then why is the government talking about empowerment of women? Unless it can make provisions and enforce them strictly to help the women in the villages, then we are in the same dark world," she said.
"Over 80 percent of the country's people live in the villages. So do the women. Some women shining in the urban society and in the world of politics hardly make any difference to the rest of us," Mariam said.