<%-- Page Title--%> Politics <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 114 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

July 18, 2003

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Towards The Political Empowerment of Women

Shumu Haque

To the outside world it maybe quite a surprise that a developing country like ours has two women in the highest positions of power the Prime Minister and the leader of the main opposition. This seems to imply that women are extremely prominent in national politics. But the fact is that our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader are exceptions and that their position does in no way indicate active participation of women in politics, rather it symbolizes the trend of family inheritance in the politics of Bangladesh.

The dark side of the story is, like most other areas of our social structure, women are discriminated against and deprived of their fundamental rights, which includes the right to participate in the political process. Apart from a few women of the privileged classes most of the women are not given the opportunity to have their own opinions regarding politics, let alone taking active part in it. It was this reality that prompted the decision to reserve a certain number of seats for the women in our parliament. The candidates were to be nominated by other parliamentarians (mostly, men), not by direct votes from the citizens.

In 1972, as per the constitution of Bangladesh, 15 seats were reserved for women through indirect election and the duration of the provision was 10 years. Subsequently, the number was increased to 30 extending the duration to 15 years. After the expiry of this duration in 1987, there was no provision for reserved women's seats in the parliament until 1990. This system was again revived in 1990 after the tenth amendment of the constitution. The duration of this was also extended for another 10 years, which ended in 2000, that is, during the seventh parliament. As a result, the eighth parliament is running without women's representation at the least significant amount. In spite of the continuous demand from different women's rights organisations and the promise to fulfill the demand by different political parties at different times, the issue of increasing women's seats and introducing direct election for women has remained unresolved. The present BNP government has not been able to live up to its election campaign pledge to increase women's seats in the parliament and ensure direct even after almost two years.

This reluctance on part of the government has raised intense discussions and arguments from various women's organisations and civil society groups and the government as well as other political parties are being condemned for their lack of initiative in this regard.

The necessity of having a significant number of women members in the parliament is now a commonly agreed upon issue. As when it comes to making and controlling the laws and policies regarding the rights of women, it is only the women, who can give a clear perspective.

What is more disappointing is the sexist attitude of some male politicians. Within the last three years, the dignity of women citizens has been attacked at several times in our national parliament. It is alarming that all of these comments were made in our parliament in the presence of our honorable present and former Prime Ministers, both of whom are women themselves. It can easily be predicted that had the presence of women in our parliament been more prominent and had they the integrity to defend themselves, such situations would not have occurred. Moreover, whenever there is a question of passing any bill regarding the rights and empowerment of women, most of the time it cannot be done due to the non-cooperation from the male parliamentarians and the lack of enough women parliamentarians to make the decision possible in spite of such obstacles.

Until now it was a desire and a faith on behalf of the women rights organisations that the women should be given an active and fair chance to participate in our parliamentary process, that their presence in parliament reflect their merit and not their connection to pilitical bigwigs.

The long awaited scientific base for their demand has been established as IDPAA, the Institute for Development Policy Analysis and Advocacy wing of PROSHIKA has just released the findings from their 'Public Opinion Survey on Increasing Women's Seats and Introducing Direct Election for Women's Representation in Parliament'.

It has confirmed the activists' faith on the public opinion for the initiative. 83.3% of the total respondents have said yes to the question “Do you think that the election pledge (increasing women's Seats and introducing direct election for women's representation in parliament) should be implemented?” It is interesting to note that women respondents who wanted to increase women's seats in the parliament and introduce direct election outnumber male respondents with similar views in all areas- rural and urban, all four divisions and the country as a whole. The survey, which was conducted on1250 subjects chosen on a scientific process, revealed the assertion of the masses for the election pledge.

The result was announced in a seminar organised by PROSHIKA on July 1st. After the result of the survey was presented by Deputy Director of IDPAA, Mustafa Abdur Rahman, the discussion took off with speeches by Mahbub-Ul-Karim, Senior Vice-President; PROSHIKA, Shirin Akhter, President, Karmojibi Nari, Najmunnesa Mahtab, Professor and Chair, Department of Women's' Studies, University of Dhaka, Mahfuz Anam, Editor, the Daily Star, Bazlur Rahman, Editor; Daily Shangbad, Kazi Faruque Ahmed, President; PROSHIKA and other renowned women's right activists and development workers.

Later, Razia Amin, Ward Commissioner; Dhaka City Corporation shared her bitter experience from the working field. Her story about how she fought with her party and finally rebelled in order to be elected directly for her constituency confirms that women politicians today can fight their own battle, can win the voters' confidence directly and therefore do not need to be puppets in the hands of the male politicians in order to be nominated for their positions which they can easily achieve by their own merit.

The speaker's thanked PROSHIKA for carrying out this important survey. Shirin Akhter referred to this survey as an instrument for women's rights workers in their movement regarding the direct representation of women in our national parliament. Mahfuz Anam suggested that it is a representation of the average peoples' wishes and a scientific proof of our desires and needs on the issue.

Referring to the State Minister's recent disrespectful comment towards women, Shirin Akhter demanded that if such a thing has been said in our parliament, it should immediately be expunged. They went on to say that in spite of having two women as our Prime Minister and Main Opposition leader we are not being able to rely on their support due to some inevitable reasons; first of all, because of their position in the politics, which they have not achieved by mere struggle but largely as family legacies. Secondly, because although they are at the heads of their parties, they have to heavily rely on the judgment and support of their fellow politicians, who are mostly male who are not really interested in women's rights. Some of the speakers have even gone as far as to refer to our Prime Minister and the opposition leader as 'social males' in this male dominated political arena.

Bazlur Rahman stressed the fact that in spite of their pre-electoral promise to take care of this pledge, the BNP government has miserably failed to do anything about this so far. “Whether it is just indecisiveness on part of the government, or is it the influence of its alliance with Jamaat, the time has come to consider it.” He suggested.

Mahfuz Anam pointed out that often the women's movement in our country has been guided more by an emotional impulse other then anything else. In order to achieve success in this struggle, women activists should have more reliance on strategy rather than emotion. They also should construct a 'roadmap' concerning the goals towards the political empowerment of women. He suggested that they could consider taking on the strategy of blocking votes in order to pressurize the political parties to comply with their demands. Anam concluded by offering his honest support for this movement.

From her extra-ordinary experience in teaching and research in the field, Najmunnesa Mahtab also offered some suggestions such as introducing the female perspective in policymaking. She expressed the importance of raising awareness, providing training and education and finally, developing and advocating the women agenda.

One of the key points that concerned almost all the speakers was the absence of a link between the research concerning the rights of women and the implementation of those results at the policy level. They have all agreed that the solution depends largely on the direct representation and political empowerment of women. The concept that confined participation of women in the parliament within 15 reserved seats through indirect election may have been appropriate for the context of that time. Three decades have passed since then, and our women have achieved a lot within this time period. Given the opportunity, they will surely succeed in their direct participation in the parliamentary process. Considering the current male dominance in our national politics, the reserved seats for women at the moment are nothing less than a necessity. But once women come under the process of political empowerment, they will prove themselves and will not need the support of those “reserved' seats. The process of direct election will only strengthen our women community and therefore will lead toward the empowerment of women at large.

The survey gives us the hope that considering the amount of awareness among the general people regarding the issue, the day is not far when they will unite to make a concerted effort to work towards the complete process of women's empowerment.



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