Women’s political empowerment still elusive

Sohrab Hassan | Update: | Print Edition

‘The 1997 women’s policy will be reinstated and will come into effect in order to ensure equal rights and opportunities for women in the state and the society, discriminatory laws will be reformed and 100 seats in parliament will be reserved for women to be elected by direct vote.’ This was Vision 2021 as envisaged in the 2008 Awami League election manifesto.

Ten years have passed since then. The ninth parliament ended tenth is on its way out, but there are no signs of the government fulfilling its commitment to implement the 1997 women’s policy or ensuring the 100 reserved parliament seats for women through direct vote. On the contrary, the ruling party on 8 July passed a law in parliament ensuring 50 reserved parliament seats through indirect votes for women for the next 25 years.

It is the norm to hold discussions with the concerned groups before any law is passed.  However, no representatives of any women’s group or organisation were consulted before the passage of this law pertaining to women parliamentarians. For many years now various women’s groups have been demanding one third of the parliamentary seats for women. Mahila Parishad even submitted a draft of a bill to the Speaker of the House, calling for an increase in the number of parliamentary seats to 450, with 150 seats reserved for women. According to their recommendation, of the 300 seats in parliament, every two seats would be considered as one reserved constituency for women. This is much in the same manner as the seats are reserved for women in our local government system. There were alternative proposals too. There was a suggestion for separating 100 seats from the 300, where only women candidates would be elected. The Hindu Buddha Christian Oikya Parishad had a similar demand to reserve seats for minorities.

It was the Awami League government that, in 1997, introduced one-third seats for women in the local government institutions. Though women faced all sorts of discrimination and harassment in carrying out their duties, this was a step towards women’s empowerment.  But the present parliament took a step in the completely opposite direction by fixing reserved seats for women for the next 25 years. This backtracks on whatever women’s empowerment was being achieved. During the rule of Ershad, the 30 reserved seats for women were mocked as mere ornamentation, but the political parties do not seem to have moved much forward since then.

Many elected male members of parliament are none too pleased with these seats for women and women have protested that even if they are qualified, the parties are often reluctant to nominate women.

Before independence, women were elected to the national assembly through indirect votes. An exception was the 1954 provincial assembly elections where women were elected through direct votes.

Since there are reserved seats for women in parliament, we can assume that the policymakers are not discarding the necessity for such seats. The question is how to fill those reserved seats. In the 2008 elections, both Awami League and BNP had pledged to increase the number of reserved seats for women to 100 and also that these would be filled through direct votes. But after the election, Awami League completely forgot about this commitment. BNP can excuse itself by saying it has been out of power for the last 12 years, but when they were in parliament they had increased the number of reserved seats for women from 30 to 45 and passed a law for a proportionate representation of the elected seats. Prior to that, the women members would be elected from whichever party had the majority in parliament. The parties in parliament are now enjoying the benefits of that law passed by BNP, but are not considering direct election of the women members. This is unfortunate.

The women’s development policy drawn up in 2011 recommended that the number of women’s seats be increased to 33 per cent and that they be elected through direct votes. If that was considered essential for women’s advancement in 2011, why is it not so now? The 15th amendment to the constitution increased women’s reserved seats to 50, but seven years on they have kept reserved seats for women for the next 25 years, and that too through indirect votes. That means, they will not be elected directly by the people, but by elected representatives of the people.

One of the major demands of Mahila Parishad was that all political party manifestoes should be committed to equal rights for men and women and that the state and society be based on this equality. They spoke against nominating oppressors of women, fundamentalists and anti-independence elements. The Hindu, Buddha, Christian Oikya Parishad had similar demands.

The political party regulations of 2008 required that by 2021, all political parties fill one third of their posts from the grassroots to the top level with women. None of the parties, whether, left, right or centre, have done this so far, nor are they in the process of doing so.  This is clearly visible in the presidiums and central committees of the major parties. Awami League talks about implementing the women’s policy, yet it is bent on appeasing Hefazat-e-Islam, the very organisation that declared jihad against the women’s development policy. Women’s empowerment or equality can never come about by catering to the fundamental forces.

The constitution upholds equal rights for men and women. Political scientist Abdur Razzak in a speech delivered in 1980 had said that half of Bangladesh’s population is men and half women. The society that cripples half of its population is actually crippling itself. This is like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind one’s back, he said.

Our policymakers have one hand tied behind their backs, even though for almost three decades the executive heads of state have been women.

We often claim ourselves to be global role models in various matters, but we even fall behind Pakistan when it comes to women seats in parliament. In Pakistan they have 68 women members of parliament among a total of 330 seats. In Bangladesh there are 71 women members of parliament among 350 seats, that is 20.3 per cent. And 50 of them have come through the reserved seats. In Nepal, 32.7 per cent of the members of parliament are women. Rwanda takes the lead in this regard with 61.3 per cent women members of parliament, followed by Cuba and Bolivia with 53.2 and 53.1 per cent respectively. Even the United Arab Emirates exceed us with 22.5 per cent. (Source: Inter Parliamentary Union)

Women’s political empowerment in Bangladesh remains elusive.

  • Sohrab Hassan is joint editor at Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at sohrabhassan55@gmail.com. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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