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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
are overwhelmingly under-represented in the Parliament.
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.
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.
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
leader of the House nor that of the opposition has
made any effort to change the status quo of a male-dominated
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
of the voters are women, but their representation
in the parliament is still an issue to lobby for.
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
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.
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
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.
Moudud Ahmed, minister for Law and Justice, delivers
his speech on the final day of the seminar.
options have been put forward by the law and justice
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
willingness is thus the key factor as far as women's
empowerment and rights are concerned.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How would you define political empowerment of women?
Is it interrelated with social empowerment, if so
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.
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?
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.
Are you in favour of keeping selected MPs alongside
the elected ones? If not, why not?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
Do you think that the government has more to do than
just clearing the way for direct election?
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
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