'Women cannot be kept out of polling booths'

Voting rights and suffrage has long been an apple of discord. There had been a time when even in the West it was said that giving women voting rights would wreck families, that women were inferior physically and intellectually, and so on. We have come a long way since then. Women are now leaders, voters and politically active. But there is still a long way to go.

These sentiments were expressed in a discussion on ‘Expectations of Women Voters’ organised as part of Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS)' regular Policy Circle event. The main discussants at the event held at The Westin on Thursday, were Kazi Nasreen Siddiqa, founder president and executive director, Education and Cultural Society; Shameem Ara Sheuli, country representative of InterNews Bangladesh; and Nadia Binte Amin, chairman, TARA Foundation.

Moderator of the discussion, Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, former foreign advisor of the government and a distinguished fellow at BIPSS, set the tone for the event by highlighting the historical significance of women's right to vote. He spoke of the persistent challenges faced by women throughout electoral history. He said there had been a shift from the negative perceptions after the First World War, when the right to vote became a pivotal issue. "Women cannot be kept out of election booths," he said, emphasising the importance of a gender balance in politics.

Kazi Nasreen Siddiqa spoke of gender-based equality, highlighting the diverse expectations of women voters, influenced by culture, norms, and geographic locations. While acknowledging progress, Siddiqa raised questions about the inclusivity of the political system and the awareness of policymakers regarding the challenges faced by women in the country. She expressed concern about the declining women voter turnout, and the lack of valid research on the reasons behind this trend. She said that women in rural areas face gender-based violence and struggle with basic needs, making politics a secondary concern. Siddiqa stressed the importance of creating a safe environment for women on election days, stating, "Without democracy, women will suffer."

Shamim Ara Sheuli, Country Representative of InterNews Bangladesh, focused on the challenges faced by women voters in the country. She highlighted the prevalent notion that women lack interest and understanding in politics, leading to biases and pressures from family members in candidate selection. Sheuli said there was a need for a shift in media coverage during election campaigns, urging the Election Commission and political parties to address the challenges faced by women voters.

The declining women voter turnout in Bangladesh raised concerns for Shamim Ara Sheuli, who stressed the importance of collective efforts to overcome these challenges. She advocated for women candidates, stating, "Women candidates can work better for the women in our country." She acknowledged the difficulties women face in securing nomination for elections and called for concerted efforts to promote gender equality in politics.

Nadia Binte Amin shared insights from a study conducted in a small village, revealing the common expectations of women voters. According to Dr. Amin, women seek honest, dedicated, and sincere representatives who will actively contribute to local development. She emphasised the evolving role of women in making independent voting decisions and their desire for voting centers near their homes due to mobility constraints. Dr. Amin underscored the importance of economic empowerment and access to information for women, asserting that these factors play a crucial role in enhancing women's participation in the electoral process. She advocated for new faces in politics, along with increased representation of women.

Diplomats based in Dhaka, former ambassadors, representatives from international organisations, academicians, journalists and students attended the event.

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