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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Social workers can change communities

By Mary Stamp

At Eastern Washington University, Bipasha Biswas teaches students that social workers build and change communities. 

Bipasha Biswas

Bipasha Biswas believes women’s rights are human rights.

As an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, she teaches the next generation of social workers to be community based and she encourages engagement in international work.  She involves them in service learning with community partners and took a group last summer to her homeland in India.

“My social work identity is to be a change agent in academic and in community settings.  Being a social worker is a 24-hour-a-day job.  We cannot do social work 9 to 5 because poverty and domestic violence do not stop at 5 p.m.,” said Bipasha.

“Social work is my identity.  Social justice is my faith,” she said.

Beyond teaching at EWU, she speaks and is involved in the community. 

Her research on the intersections of stigma, violence, access and health care relate to risky sexual behavior and to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.  These issues connect with violence against women, human trafficking, domestic violence, gender stereotypes in media and human rights abuses. 

Bipasha, who teaches a class on women’s rights and human rights with the School of Social Work and with Women’s and Gender Studies at EWU, spoke at the International Women’s Day gathering March 8 at the Riverpoint campus.

Despite ongoing oppression, she said that there has been some progress in the 20 years since the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing in 1995.  Representatives there from 195 countries adopted a Platform for Action to empower women. 

“It’s a commitment to achieve equality, development and peace for women around the globe by removing obstacles to their participation in public and private life,” she told participants at the Spokane gathering.

When she was finishing undergraduate studies at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, Bipasha heard about the Beijing conference and about the U.S. President’s wife, Hillary Clinton, speaking there. 

“I learned new words:  ‘gender lens’ and ‘girl child.’  I began looking at what those words meant in my life and in India,” she said.

She knew about the violence against women—such as gang rapes, sex trafficking and domestic violence. 

“For the first time, issues of women in South Asia were important to talk about,” said Bipasha.

She went on to earn a master’s in social work in 1997 at Bombay University and a doctoral degree in 2008 at Washington University at St. Louis.  She stayed there and taught at St. Louis University School of Social Work as an assistant professor until 2012, when she came to EWU.

“I chose to come to EWU as a public university, because I wanted to work with first-generation college students who are from migrant, immigrant, minority or poverty backgrounds,” she said.  “I wanted to work with vulnerable populations.”

In India, both as a student and after earning her master’s degree, she worked seven years with agencies addressing STI/HIV/AIDS prevention, care, treatment and support services.  That work intersected with poverty and with stigma related to women, marginalized and oppressed people.

Bipasha returns to India for five weeks each year.  She had intended to return after her doctoral degree, but she married an American computer programmer, and they decided to live in the United States.

In 2014, she took 15 EWU students for three weeks to India to introduce them to her work there and take them “out of their comfort zone.”

“Human trafficking, violence against women, gender inequality and discrimination are issues not only in other countries but also in the United States,” she said. 

On International Women’s Day, Bipasha discussed what the Beijing Conference on Women means now. 

She showed a video summarizing the platform’s call to remove obstacles to women, to be in solidarity with and to empower women—so they have equal access to education, health care and economic development—and to see women as peacemakers.

“Women’s rights are human rights,” the declaration concluded.

In teaching the class on that topic, she was sad to learn that many EWU students, women and men, did not know they had human rights. 

Bipasha also teaches about the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  It was adopted by the UN in 1979 and signed by President Jimmy Carter.  However, only the U.S. and six other countries did not ratify it.

“Women have made progress but have a long way to go to be equal,” Bipasha said.  “There is more to do so all girls can go to school, so there is equal pay for equal work, and so there is an end to violence against women.”

The Beijing Platform lists 12 areas to improve to achieve women’s equality and empowerment: poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, decision-making, institutional advancement, human rights, the media, the environment and the girl child.

It identifies actions needed by governments, financial and development institutions, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), women’s groups and the private sector.

It calls for women to be a part of decision-making, but in 20 years women have just gone from being 20 percent to 22 percent of Parliaments, and there have been just a few prime ministers.

The video reported that:

• Women lag in wages and education. 

• One in three women experience physical or sexual violence by intimate partners.

• There is a huge disparity in female infanticide.

• About 800 women die every day of pregnancy related issues.

• Women suffer greatly in armed conflicts.

• Women are denied the right to acquire property in 60 countries.

• In media, 46 percent of stories promote gender stereotypes.

These need to be dealt with together, Bipasha said.  For example, after sex workers are rescued in India, it’s important to connect them with microfinance banks to help them start businesses.

Commercial sexual exploitation, which is behind 95 percent of human trafficking, stems from the ability to recruit women and children out of poverty.  Fathers will sell daughters and wives, she said.  It needs to be addressed as modern slavery and a global human rights violation.

Bipasha said many women are so intimidated, they give up and believe it’s their destiny to be raped by 100 men a day and develop sexually transmitted diseases.

“The challenge is to understand how to help them find power to take back their lives,” she said, “and then how to use their own pain and isolation as motivation to teach or do other jobs.  They need to understand they can move from pain to power.”

Bipasha encountered many such women when she worked on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support among women in households, and women and children caught in prostitution or rescued from it.

“In 1997, nearly 70 percent of women in prostitution in Bombay were HIV infected,” she said. 

The challenge to society is to undo the barriers to victims, said Bipasha, who grew up in India in West Bengal, under a democratically elected Communist government.  That formed her commitment to social justice, which was reinforced by her studies and by  teaching at a social-justice oriented Jesuit university.

“It’s fashionable to talk about human trafficking as a discussion topic,” she said, “but we also need to open minds and hearts in compassion to accept and employ victims and survivors of trafficking,” she said.

“Commercial sexual exploitation exists in Spokane,” she said, calling people to be involved locally and globally.

Locally, Bipasha connects with people working at Hope House for women, at the YWCA’s Alternatives to Domestic Violence Program, with Human Rights Watch, with a United Methodist pastor, with the Spokane Regional Health District and Spokane AIDS Network on HIV and AIDS.

“We can work to solve the world’s problems in our own back yards, as well as in other countries,” she said.

For information, call 359-7739 or email bbiswas@ewu.edu.



Copyright © April 2015 - The Fig Tree