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February 29, 2004

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Women's participation in parliament: An alternative proposal

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar

According to newspaper reports, the government is considering to increase the number of parliamentary seats to 450, of which 50 would be reserved for women. The women's seats would be divided among political parties according to their existing parliamentary strengths. Various stakeholders reacted sharply and angrily against this proposal. I make here an alternative proposal for ensuring a critical mass of women in Parliament for effectively raising their voice while overcoming the criticisms of the government proposal.

Why women's representation in Parliament?
There are two overriding arguments for significant representation of women in Parliament. First is the argument of democracy, human rights and equality. The fundamental principle of democracy is that the power of government is only legitimate when derived from the consent of the governed. That is, a truly democratic system requires participation of all citizens. Hence a governance system with little or no presence of women can hardly be called democratic. Thus, democracy cannot be gender-blind, and our Constitution (Articles 10, 19(1) and 28(2)) guarantees equality for women.

Poverty eradication is the other reason for increased women's participation in governance. Nearly half of our population lives below the poverty line. Of the poor, women are the poorest, and their poverty is unfortunately the primary source of the overall poverty condition in our country.

Flawed government proposal
The government's proposed new reservation system for women is seriously flawed. First of all, the proposal offers too little only 50 out of 450 or 11% seats in Parliament for women compared to 10% during the last Parliament. This represents a token gesture, reflecting the "generosity" of the policymakers rather than a genuine effort to redress longstanding discrimination against women. Secondly, contrary to the commitment of BNP, the proposal calls for selection rather than direct election of women MPs. Thirdly, in the proposed system the MPs from the regular and reserve seats will have overlapping responsibilities, and the female MPs will have no accountability to the people. Rather they will be "accountable" to the party bosses. Fourthly, the selection of MPs by parties rather than election by the voters will exclude women from the process of mainstream politics and decision-making. They will be looked down upon by their male colleagues, and denied real powers and responsibilities. They will be relegated to minor, peripheral and symbolic roles as has happened in the case of women representatives in local governments. Fifthly, since under the proposed system the women MPs will not have their own constituencies and do not have to face voters, their selections will not be based on competence or "electability." Rather their connections to party leaders and their lobbying ability will be the most important qualification for being selected. In our present corrupt and criminalised political culture, "selling" the women's membership in Parliament for money or other considerations may not also be completely ruled out. Sixthly, the proposal will allow the women's seats in Parliament to be used as spoils by the party high command a tool of bestowing "favours" to women in party or in family. This will further corrupt our politics, contributing more to our already ineffective parliamentary democracy. The naked patronage system practiced in our "winner-take-all" political culture, ignoring fairness and justice, is perhaps the worst form of corruption, and it has already caused enormous harms to our political system. We can ill afford yet another patronage tool, especially for selecting our leaders. Finally, the proposed reservation system, like in the past, will fail to empower a significant cadre of women leaders with deep grassroots connections who can stand on their own and get elected competing against men. Given all these pitfalls, the proposed system will be clearly counterproductive to our goal of empowering women and their voices and concerns reflected in national policymaking.

An alternative proposal
A quota or reservation is usually introduced to protect and promote the interests of minority groups who are traditionally excluded from political powers. However, women are not minorities, and a reservation system is not appropriate for them in the long-run, although it will be necessary for a while to give them a head start. Women are half of our population and their legitimate right is to have 50% representation in Parliament. With this premise, I propose a rotating system that will reserve 1/3 of all parliamentary seats for women through direct elections, plus the possibility of women being elected to unreserved seats.

This proposal will require apportioning all seats in Parliament into three groups. In the first term, 1/3 of all seats/constituencies will be chosen by lottery and reserved for women for a period of one term. All candidates within those constituencies must be women and they will be directly elected by the voters.

In the second term, a second and different 1/3 of seats will be reserved for women from the constituencies that were previously unreserved. Through direct elections, this second third of the total seats will be filled by women.

The same process occurs in the third term with the remaining seats. The cycle repeats itself until it is deemed no longer necessary. In this way, each seat in Parliament will be reserved for women 1/3 of the time on a rotating basis.

Under this proposal, women may also run for election to the non-reserved seats. The most effective women representatives, with strong grassroots connections, may also win against men. In this way, the overall representation of women will be higher than 1/3 and can approach the ideal 50/50 representation, ensuring that women's voices are heard.

The rotating system has much attractiveness. First, it will put in place a built-in mechanism for empowering a new generation of women leaders by allowing them to be directly elected from a specific constituency and getting the opportunity to nurture the constituency for future elections. The proposal will allow within three terms the election of at least one woman MP from each constituency, and thus the empowerment of a minimum of 300 to 450 women leaders, depending on the total number of MPs. It will particularly open opportunities for women from the grassroots to express their leadership and be elected on their own in the future, making the reservation system unnecessary in the long-run.

Secondly, it will avoid overlapping responsibilities and make the women MPs accountable to the people, not to the party bosses. Such accountability will be consistent with the basic tenet of parliamentary democracy and also Article 65(2) of our Constitution which requires Members of Parliament to be elected from "single territorial constituencies by direct election."

Thirdly, this proposal will adhere to the democratic principle of direct elections. It will in the process allow the women MPs to have the same powers and responsibilities as their male counterparts, making our political system inclusive.

Fourthly, the proposed system will make competence and "electability" of women as primary criteria for nomination as opposed to connections to and lobbying ability with the party high command. In such a situation, the political parties will search for and nominate the best candidates, creating opportunities for true leaders to represent women.

In the final analysis, because of the need to nominate competent women, this proposal will prevent the women seats in Parliament from being used as a patronage tool. This may in turn reduce political corruption and lessen dynastic influence in our political system.

It must be pointed out that guaranteeing significant women's presence in Parliament is not enough; women must be given the freedom to voice their opinions and concerns so that they can work in a bipartisan manner on issues important to them. In the present condition, Article 70 of our Constitution prevents MPs from being the voice of their constituencies and vote against the wishes of the party. This single constitutional provision makes a mockery of our claim that Parliament represents the people. A critical step in this respect is to abolish Article 70 to ensure that every MP, including the woman MP, is free to vote his or her conscious thinking primarily of the people, not of the party. This must, however, be accompanied by bold political reforms, ensuring the practice of democratic norms in party as well as national politics.

Concluding remarks
It is clear that if we are to solve our problems of widespread poverty and malnutrition, which is the source of chronic persistent hunger, we must find ways to empower women, ensure their equality and create opportunities for them. This will in turn require their political empowerment significantly involving them in the political arena so that their voices are heard and their concerns reflected in the policy and decision-making processes. Guaranteeing a significant proportion of seats for women in the Parliament is an important step in that direction.

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, Global Vice President and Country Director, The Hunger Project-Bangladesh.


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