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August 01 , 2003

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Women in a Limbo?

Mustafa Zaman

Women Empowerment has almost become a catch phrase in developmental jargon. Yet in reality as a concept its meaning and implications still remain unexamined and ambiguous. The political empowerment of women is even more elusive than their social empowerment. Education, employment and active participation in the social and even in the political stage, are not enough to assure empowerment.

In a nation caught in the tangle of a quasi-feudal land system and an accelerated form of market economy plagued by bad governance, loose administration and black money, the notion of equality and empowerment of women itself sounds ironic. But it is a concept that is beginning to be taken seriously thanks to the efforts of women's organisations. Political empowerment of women is a topic that has steamed up recently after the provision of women's reserved seats in the eighth parliament expried and the coalition in power simply let it pass.

Since the government is not willing to lift a finger and the opposition seems not too bothered either about the issue, women's organisations have become more and more concerned. They have been rallying for direct election for the reserved seats since the day autocracy was toppled. Civil society comprising the women organisations, lobby platforms and groups have raised their voices and resorted to different forms of lobbying including street agitation. A lot has been done to pressurise the government. The need for increased political participation has become an immediate one in the wake of growing human rights violations against women and their increasing disempowerment by a patriarchal society. The Democracywatch, a non-government organisation, organised a seminar recently to bring forth the current debates regarding the issue of women's representation in parliament. SWM closely examines the issue of the political empowerment of women in the context of the seminar.

On July 20, 2003, the British council auditorium was brimming with people. There were invited dignitaries and women activists and journalists, most of them were participants and the rest were observers.

The research paper presented by Dr. Salahuddin M. Annisuzzaman and his associates elucidated what political empowerment was all about and the causes that impede its implementation.

The paper titled “Women's Representation in the Jatiya Sangsad: A Survey” provided some nitty-gritty details about the parliamentary system. It brought up the subject of PR (proportional representation, in which the number of seats are determined by the percentage of vote gained nationwide) and the majoratarian system of parliament. The paper made a point in favour of this form. It said that PR facilitated women's participation, while the single-member district majoratarian systems have proven to be the worst possible system for women. The PR system, the paper cautioned, has proved to be efficacious in the developed northern European countries, where women were well organised to take advantage of the system. We must add to it the social context of these countries, where women are socially active, and in many ways empowered to a certain extent.

In Bangladesh, at present, the issue of representation of women in the parliament is rife. Though the present parliament of Bangladesh has past eight sessions without women representatives.

The issue is certainly is in need of clarification, as the majority of people have a very narrow notion of empowerment. Often even women political activists themselves lose focus of the real issue of empowerment and mix it up with women's education.

Women are overwhelmingly under-represented in the Parliament.

Education and empowerment, especially political one, are two different issues, one hardly is related to the other. This fact is more true in the socio-economic and political context of Bangladesh. Sri Lanka exemplifies the failure to match their success in education with that of representation in the parliament and in other important political turf. Women's literacy in Sri Lanka is almost at par with that of men, but women's place in politics and in other decision making mechanism is almost negligible.
In the evening session of the seminar, an activist and an expert in women empowerment issues, Chulani Tania Kudikara of Sri Lanka provided the figures. Woman/man literacy ratio is 81.1/90.1, whereas women represent only a paltry 4.4 percent in the parliament. Sri Lanka introduced the PR system in 1974?, but has still failed to produce any results.

Kudikara concluded her presentation with a word that applies to every other country of the world, as the phenomenon of under-representation of women is a global one. She said, “if politics continues to reinforce the stereotypes, education alone cannot bail out women.” She referred to politics as “the last bastion of patriarchy”, the changes should be initiated from here as well as from the grass-root level.

In the seminar jointly organised by Democracywatch and the British Council, the issue of political empowerment was a synonym for representation of women in parliament. After the reading of the keynote paper, during the open discussion session, the word “ornamentation” popped up in many occasions. Some participants used it to define the provision of thirty reserved seats of the past parliaments, some even resorted to it while describing the proposed sixty plus seats for women. The fear is that even if women were elected in the proposed 64 seats they would not be allowed to sit at the national assembly as equal to their male counterparts.

Neither the leader of the House nor that of the opposition has made any effort to change the status quo of a male-dominated parliament.

Many cited the example of the elected women commissioners, who had no office to sit and no duties to attend to. As such, had no bearing in the administrative course of actions that they were elected to affect in the first place.
The special guest, a JP (Ershad) MP G.M. Kader Chowdhury, dubbed the representation of women at Union Parishad as mere “ornamentation”. “This is not empowerment, this is just a number,” opined Chowdhury. The honourable MP was of the belief that in respect of empowerment there is a contradiction in wanting to get elected in the reserved seats. Because it is an interim management to empower women, the women MPs would never be considered equal, and their influence would be limited. So it would be effective to enforce the political parties to nominate 40 or 50 women candidates but making it mandatory.

Whether representation in the national assembly in reserved seats alone is an assurance to political empowerment is debatable. But it is certainly a stepping-stone to meet that end, this the civil body comprising representatives from NGOs and other women organisations present at the seminar agreed on unanimously.

The minister of law and justice, Barrister Moudud Ahmed, the chief guest at the seminar, gave voice to this same premise in his speech. Representation with direct election was the issue that received approbation of both the parties: the civil body and the government representative in the seminar. It was the modality that remained unresolved.

“With several options at hand, the government is contemplating a bill which would be introduced in the present parliament,” Ahmed explained to dispel any doubt about his government's willingness to pursue issues related to women. But one must recall that at the onset of the eighth parliament the same minister firmly expressed his government's wish to fulfill the pre-election pledge and to introduce direct mode of election in the reserved seats for women. That pledge never materialised, and the provision for 30 reserved seats, which at least provided a chance for the party or parties in power to accommodate their handpicked women activists and leaders, also expired.

The present government has been dithering with the issue since they came into power in 2001. After 21 months, the parliament that has passed many new legislations, and amended a few, is stuck with the issue of women representation and direct election mode.

Almost half of the voters are women, but their representation in the parliament is still an issue to lobby for.

Motia Chowdhury, a member of the AL presidium, in her speech, scathingly criticised the present government for its utter lack of sincerity in dealing with the issue. She implored the law and justice minister to take up the matter, saying “You have the two third majority and you can resolve the issue of direct election.” The last government, of which she was the agricultural minister, however, also received flak for their inability to pass a law during their tenure that would allow direct election to women. But Motia contested this allegation. She contended that AL took the initiative but no one responded. In reality the AL tried to take the initiative in the last two years of their tenure. But, because they set the limit to 30 seats and most of the women organisations were lobbying for more than 60 reserved seats, the bill never got to see its ratification.

“We did not have the two third majority, and when BNP was solicited to join the session that had strove to pass the bill, they simply did not turn up,” said Motia Chowdhury while responding to the accusation that AL, like their political opponent, also lacked the willingness to empower women. The Democracywatch research paper points out that the provision of 30 reserved seats lapsed in 1999, during the last parliament, and was needed to be renewed during AL tenure. It says that due to lack of positive initiative of the then ruling party and frequent refusal to join the parliament sessions by the opposition parties resulted in expiry of the reserved seats.

The issue that rocked the seminar during the open discussion session is that both Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party did not keep their election promises. Many were of the opinion that in the last parliament the AL could do something about it if they had the political will.

Another issue was whether the presence of women in parliament was mere ornamentation? The word's pervasiveness made one thing clear that the representatives of the women organisations and lobby groups did not simply want elected women MPs in the parliament, they wanted women to go further up in the ladder by experiencing the real polity at the grass-root level. The quota would be set, and most of them are targeting 64 seats. These seats would be contested for in sixty-four constituencies in the sixty-four districts throughout the country.

Barrister Moudud Ahmed, minister for Law and Justice, delivers his speech on the final day of the seminar.

Four options have been put forward by the law and justice minister

1) 64 women MPs will be elected from 64 districts. Each candidate will fight in a constituency comprising five regular constituencies, in which the voters' figure will be five times larger than what each man candidate usually faces. The figure comes to around 25 lakhs.
2) A regular constituency will be earmarked for women, and this process would rotate from one constituency to the other, year after year. Each year, in a particular district, one constituency will serve as the seat of one woman MP.
3) A law will be promulgated to make each political party reserve 10 or 15 per cent of the candidacy for women. Each woman will contest either men or women, depending on who the other parties are nominating in that constituency. This process is disadvantageous to women.
4) The number of MPs will be increased. Parliament will be of 360 seats. And each woman MP will be elected from the normal constituency. The number of voters will decrease as well as the campaign area.

About the modality there was no consensus in the seminar. A seminar is not a platform where these issues may see a solution. It can only bring up a subject to be discussed and scrutinised by people in government and by civil and political bodies on the other side. This the seminar did. The moderator Muhammad Jahangir even coaxed the Law and Justice minister in pledging to solve the issue as quickly as possible.

Keeping the pledge in mind, one will have to think of other aspects too. One, and the most important aspect will be whether before the government formulates its policy, drafts the law and takes the initiative to move a bill in the parliament, all these bodies are consulted. Because it is the experts outside the government as well as inside it, who would be able to shape the successive steps that may lead towards the empowerment of women. Their assistance must be sought.

The issue of women's empowerment is an academic one, and the academicians too have a lot to offer as far as setting the option is concerned. Before the government settles for an option, all the avenues at all levels, from the stage of the policy formulation to its implementation, must be explored.

If the issue of women's political empowerment is being given priority, another thing that should be remembered is that it is not merely a question of replacing a male posted in a powerful post or seat with a woman. It should be an issue of bringing the view of women, unshackled from any kind of stereotypes enforced on women by men, into the mainstream social and political life. Otherwise the ills of the society that manifest themselves in the form of violence, corruption or exploitation will not only be there but women will also start to contribute to them. The crux of the matter is, women have the power to set new priorities, which would give salience to certain issues like education, health, and economic policies aimed at the betterment of the silent majority.

Women leaders in the workshop on the second day of the seminar titled “Political Empowerment of Women Present Perspective and Way Forward” at the British Council auditorium.

At one point of the seminar, when the question of competence and readiness of women was raised, Maleka Begum, acting researcher of NCBP, one of the participants in the seminar, brought up the question of what men are doing in the parliament. “Are they working to bring a change to better peoples' lives in the socio-economic term, are their meritorious actions leading us to a nation that will assure health, education and economic prosperity?” she asked. The answers to these questions are public knowledge.

Prof, Nazma Chowdhury defined empowerment as the capacity to influence policy formulation within the constitution and in political parties. This cannot be achieved in one go. Steps are being set by women, or should one say their representatives in various non-government bodies. Reserved seats through direct election would be a giant step in the context of what women in Bangladesh had achieved in different social grounds. Whatever model is followed in providing women to contest in the grass-root level for seats in parliament, it would be interesting to observe whether the women candidates run their campaign under the clout of their spouse or father-in-law.

This is the morass that the women must avoid to carve out a new political role as well as agendas for themselves. Here the concept of women and their role in the society takes a new turn. It neither follows the rut set by man nor does it strive to become a part of the existing social structure.

'Transformation at the national level' is what Prof. Jahanara Khan perceives as real development. And this idea of transformation is what the women leadership should keep in mind. It is a truism to say that leadership born out of patriarchy serves the patriarchy. Jahanara Khan attributes the present crisis regarding women's empowerment to the fact that both the leaders of opposition and the government are the direct products of patriarchy.
So what does get in the way of finding a solution to direct election? It is not only the constitution, it is also dependent on variables. In the constitution women's equal right is assured. But to implement the concept of equality, various goals are being set. Direct election is one of the goals that remains to be achieved. Among the various obstacles, there are socio-economic and psychological factors.

Women's access to politics is dependent on their social and economic status. Economic status is contingent upon the social one. With certain mass psychological make up that perpetuates the concept of women being incompetent, unworthy and suitable only for certain roles, women are categorically being denied entry into all the stratums of life -- social and economic. Society breeds double standards and prevents women from having access to all sorts of opportunities that may bring self-sufficiency. In short, the social environ is working against women.

Keeping this truth in mind, one must resort to politics, it would be the most effective tool for women to change their social and economic status.

A lot depends on the political parties. In the political arena, one important factor is disparity in perception among parties. A lot can be done in favour of women if political parties could really find a common ground, which they often feign to have achieved.

The four party alliance is in power with a two third majority, they and even the opposition can make a difference. Setting priorities is of foremost importance. And the perception about women and their rights and role in the society has a bearing in doing so. It is noteworthy that the government in power out of sheer lack of sensitivity and understanding has amended the 'Women and Children Repression Prevention 2000, Act without consulting any women bodies. The amendment of 2003 decriminalises sexual harassment and any kind of verbal abuse including obscene gestures aimed at women. Women organisations were not even consulted before the bill was moved.

Political willingness is thus the key factor as far as women's empowerment and rights are concerned.

Although disparity in perception did not surface much in the seminar, few did give dissent to the topic of direct election. An ex woman MP from the BNP fold did voice her discontent with the urgency with which the women organisations are pressing the issue of direct election. She gave articulation to a concept that had few takers. Yet it is true that it is a rough ride out in the ground level where a woman will have to accomplish something that even men are finding to be quite intimidating.

The words 'money' and 'muscle' were brought up in the seminar by a few male participants. This is where women's access to power is at stake. Violence, corruption, political manipulation and even the electoral system work as deterrent. But, there is a flip side to it. If women wish to enter into polity and run for election avoiding the power play that men engage in, there is a chance that the whole process will get a new lease of life.

The research paper suggests that even after changing the electoral system, in order to be able to take advantage of the institutional supports, certain electoral structures have to be provided by the government.
With problems multiplying in all the sectors of life, what is being compromised is not only women's rights or right to empowerment but also good governance. Will women be able to take their agenda forward without enmeshing themselves in the existing socio-political tangle? To find out, one must wait with great expectations.

Direct Elections

The Only Solution

Maleka Begum has come into prominence as a social activist. As a researcher of women's rights issues and a leading women's rights activist, she has been actively involved in voicing women's issues at the national level. Star Weekend Magazine (SWM) talks to her on the subject of direct election of women.

SWM: How would you define political empowerment of women? Is it interrelated with social empowerment, if so how?

Maleka Begum: Politics and society are inter-related, one is dependent upon the other. Social issues like health, education, justice are also political issues. In their drive to get votes, politicians' embellish their public addresses during campaigns with promises of good healthcare or education system, so, I think that the political is often synonymous with whatever is social.

SWM: If the reserve seat system in the parliament is perceived as a step-up to women's political empowerment, why is the present model based on selection so unacceptable?

MB: The party in power with a majority gets to 'select' their own candidates in this system. The people should be selecting them, as the parliament is for the representatives of the people. Election is the only process known to us through which this democratic selection can be done. And through direct election, women belonging to other non-political outfits like women's rights organisations or any other non-government organisations will get a chance to contest for a seat in the parliament.

SWM: Are you in favour of keeping selected MPs alongside the elected ones? If not, why not?

MB: No, I am not in favour of keeping selected MPs in parliament. Because they would be nominated and selected by the party in power, and would only serve the interest of the party in power alone. Our past experience has shown that these women MPs have never been able to act on their own. Once they are democratically elected even in reserved seats, they will be much more empowered to act on their own.

SWM: Running for election on the reserve seats will entail a lot of effort on the part of the candidates and they will be in need of support in the area of logistics as they may have limited knowledge of campaigning and in swaying the voters in their favour. Do you think that our women are up to it?

MB: Let the candidates worry about this. If someone is not up to it she will not run for election, and that is that. Who are bailing the women out in all the other sectors? When did men ever come to the rescue when women were struggling to overcome all sorts of problems and impediments that get in the way? If someone is not ready let other women take the chance.

SWM: You have suggested during the debate session in the seminar on 'Political Empowerment of Women' that the women organisations had other options, what are these options regarding modalities of election to the reserved seats?

MB: In the end, at present, we are unanimous on one thing that we will not mention the number to the government. We have all been through that stage, when several options and several figures were placed to the government. Now we have reached a point when we have agreed to stand for the one and only demand, which is 'direct election'. The rest the government will decide.

SWM: Women got elected as ward commissioners, but we hear that they do not have offices of their own or duties to attend to. What if the elected women MPs are met with the same fate?

MB: These elected women representatives are complaining while they are sitting in the Nagar Bhaban. They are whining about not getting the share of wheat for the 'food for work programme' and the works of road building. Their idea of empowerment is centred on these factors. But do they ever try to fulfil their election promises? If it is the people for whom they are working, I think they must put more effort and turn to people. They say that we can not compete for 'tenderbaji', meaning that while the men scramble for government tenders the women cannot follow suit. The total political culture must be altered. And to do that women representative must use their resources. They must take recourse to non-government political or social bodies in their constituency to organise and mobilise the people to pressurise the local government.

SWM: Do you think that the government has more to do than just clearing the way for direct election?

MB: The government has not yet allocated a budget for this provision of direct election. But we cannot sit idle, we must lobby for all the issues that would eventually lead to empowerment of women and resolve socio-economic issues. The women representatives also have to realise this fact. If the government fails to fulfil a promise, we must go to the people. The sad fact is that most women in politics are carrying out the narrow agenda of the party. Unless the social and other non-political bodies can mobilise the people on important national issues, women will fail to fulfil their goals.

I don't think that the government needs to take any special steps aimed at women candidates. If they assure security and make sure that the limit of three lakh Taka to spend in the election campaign is maintained, then there will be no need for any special actions or procedure.






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