<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
happened to Women's Representation?
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.