<%-- Page Title--%> Weekend Musings <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 113 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 11, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>


Whatever happened to Women's Representation?

Mahfuz Anam

It is almost two years that our parliament has been running without any special representation of women. It is ironic that while two women hold the two most powerful positions in the House -namely that of the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition they have shown absolutely no interest, since the last elections, to do anything about getting due representation of women in the Jatiya Sangsad. Let us recall that as per the 1972 Constitution 15 seats were reserved for women through indirect election. This was later increased to 30 and was valid till the end of the 7th parliament. Since the last election there are no reserved seats for women. In the second session of the current parliament Prime Minister Khaleda Zia did mention that a bill would be brought providing for direct election for women's seats. We are yet to see any follow up on that. In its place we have the law minister's comments in November last year that nothing much could be expected during the tenure of the 8th parliament.
There were numerous weaknesses in the reserved seats system. First, these women MPs used to be selected by the party or coalition of parties that commanded majority in the House and hence lacked the 'prestige' of being elected directly by voters; second, they did not represent any specific constituency and as such did not have any constituency related functions; third, their election depended on the 'pleasure' of the party leaders and not on the wishes of voters; fourth, they usually lacked the necessary parliamentary experience to make good use of their position.
Because of all the above these women MPs were seldom given any important task nor did they have the confidence to raise issues independently of their party directives. The net result was that these MPs did not 'represent' the women of Bangladesh in whose name they occupied those seats. They never did anything special for the cause of promoting the issues of women within the House, which was their moral obligation.
For all the above reasons when the legal provision for these reserved women's seats expired, towards the end of the last parliament, the leaders of the women's movement in the country felt that time was ripe for a significant change in the old system. Some fundamental demands were made-namely increasing the number of women's seats from 30 to some bigger number. Regrettably a consensus never emerged on this figure, as some groups demanded doubling of the old figure and others 100, 150 and so on. A far more important demand was that they be directly elected. Numerous discussions were held with all the political parties, especially the BNP and the AL, the latter being in power at that time. Since a mere renewal of the old provision was not acceptable to the women's groups nothing was done. The ruling AL also lacked the necessary majority in the parliament to bring about the type of Constitutional amendment needed to enhance women's reserved seats. The provision expired and we ended up with the current situation of having a parliament that has no women representation except those who have been directly elected a total of 6 out of 300 seats.
There is no question that the whole situation is a collective failure of our political system. It is a reflection of the lack of political sensitivity towards empowerment of the 50 per cent of our voters and it is a very strong proof- if proof is at all needed- how male dominated our political culture really is. However it has to be pointed out that our two leading political parties pay only lip service to the issue of women's representation. Within the folds of their own parties they do very little to promote women leaders to responsible and senior positions. As the government of the day BNP is showing no interest in it. Though some interest was shown towards the beginning the position of the moment is that nothing likely is to come out of the present parliament. This is in spite of the fact that BNP categorically promised to introduce direct elections for women if it got elected. With two thirds majority the present government has no excuse to procrastinate on this issue.
There is also no escaping the fact that the present neglect of women's representation issue is a massive failure of our women's groups and their leadership. Both the Awami League and the BNP have very strong women front bodies of their respective parties. They virtually had no impact on getting women's issues into the main agenda of their respective parties. In fact they don't even act to protect the minimum dignity of women when insulting remarks and innuendoes are passed against women. (Just the other day the Home Minister made an insulting remark about women activists of the opposition and the Parliamentary Advisor to the PM about women observing Ekushey February. The BNP women leaders made no protest). The numerous powerful women's organisations that are not affiliated with political parties have also failed to make a national issue out of the fact that there is today no special representation of women in the 8th Parliament.
The lack of clarity of demands and absence of consensus among women's groups have contributed to their lack of resolution. Given the extremely divisive nature of our politics it is perhaps a bit utopian to expect consensus among all women's groups on these complicated issues. But still there is a need for the emergence of some sort of 'general view'. Without such a convergence among women's groups we do not see the issue grabbing centre-stage of our politics anytime soon.
Along side the emergence of a 'general view' women's bodies must also develop more effective means of articulating their demands and 'lobbying' for them for wider acceptance among other groups (businesspersons, lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers-all professional groups) and in the civil society in general. They must learn from international experiences as to how to effectively promote specific agenda of disadvantaged sections through networking, public information, strategic positioning, etc. If all else fails women must organise themselves and learn to use their 'bloc votes' as bargaining points with political parties--more pro-action for women's causes more women's votes in elections.
All recent surveys show an overwhelming public support for more women in our parliament. What we now need to do is to force our political parties to adopt what our people have already accepted.


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is jointly published by the Daily Star with the technical assistance provided by Onirban.