Discrimination against women UNOs must end

EditorialProthom Alo illustration

It is a matter of hope that women’s participation in the administration at the grassroots has increased. At the same time, the discriminatory attitude and behaviour they face from the people’s representatives, journalists and their male colleagues, is a matter of concern.

There are 495 upazilas in the country. In these upazilas, there are 149 women UNO (upazila nirbahi officers). Given these numbers, this may seem to be an indicator of considerable advancement in women’s empowerment in the country.

One of the main reasons behind appointing women officers at the grassroots is that they can grasp the local problems very well, particular those of women. They are easily accessible to women

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) carried out a survey of the 495 upazilas from June last year till March this year, though only 45 persons took part in the survey. Based on their views, the TIB survey reveals that it is the upazila chairman and local journalists who put the most pressure on the women UNOs for undue benefits and facilities. Also joining them are the local members of parliament, members of the law enforcement, local politicians and other government officials. Pressure also comes from the deputy commissioner, the assistant deputy commissioner and the local people.

One of the main reasons behind appointing women officers at the grassroots is that they can grasp the local problems very well, particularly those of women. They are easily accessible to women. But how will they carry out their duties effectively if they are harassed at every step and under pressure of influential quarters?

They are pressurised regarding distribution of relief materials, fund allocation, issuance of false bills. Local people’s representatives and local journalists often form an unholy alliance and use each other to put pressure of the women UNOs.

Certain influential quarters are the main obstacle to women’s empowerment as well as the rule of law and to people’s access to services. It is not possible in all cases for these women to lodge complaints. The government must use its intelligence information to identify these so-called influential quarters and bring them to book.

Miscreants launched an attack on the Ghoraghat UNO Wahida Khanam in Dinajpur in September last year. She had joined as UNO there in November 2018 and was carrying out her duties with integrity and courage. As a result, many people’s unethical earnings and muscle flexing was brought to a halt. They are the ones who attacked her for doing them ‘damage’.

It is not only at a local level, but even some members of parliament display discrimination against women. A few months ago, the parliamentary standing committee for the liberation war affairs ministry recommended that women UNOs be replaced by alternative persons when presenting guard of honour to freedom fighters who passed away. In a country where the prime minister is a woman and the speaker of the House is a woman, how can such a recommendation be made?

TIB has put forward an eight-point recommendation to address this negative attitude towards women UNOs. These recommendations include training to sensitise the people’s representatives and other officials of the upazila parishad, and inclusion of gender sensitive programmes in the ACR for government officials. The government should take these recommendations into consideration and ensure an environment at the grassroots that is conducive to these women officials to work freely and fearlessly.