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    Volume 8 Issue 96 | November 27, 2009 |

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Women in South Asian Politics

Elita Karim

Bangladesh is probably one of the few South Asian nations to be headed by women for such long periods of time. In fact, the council elected by the current government consists of several women, including the Home and Foreign Ministers, two of the most important positions typically given to male ministers. According to surveys, in Bangladesh, women account for 18 percent of MPs in the parliament. In India, the ratio is 8.3 percent while in Pakistan the ratio is 21.6 percent. The global average was 18.3 percent in 2008. Of course great leaders like Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, former prime ministers of India and Pakistan respectively have provided enormous inspiration with their strength and determination to fight for their beliefs even though they knew that they may well have to die for them.

But despite such encouraging examples of women leaders heading their respective governments, are women in the South Asia adequately represented in parliament? Has their political participation increased significantly over the decades? Recently, the South Asia Partnership (SAP) International and SAP Bangladesh supported by Oxfam Novib, organised a two-day regional conference at Brac Inn in Dhaka, which was attended by women leaders from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and other countries as well. Representatives from the South Asian countries spoke on violence against women in politics and shared their personal stories and experiences.

Advocate Sultana Kamal speaks at the conference.

South Asian Partnership (SAP) International is a Southern-based, Southern-led regional organisation that has been promoting Democracy in South Asia through civil societies in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Canada.

According to the declaration made by the representatives of the South Asian countries at the two-day conference, the biggest obstacle that prevents women's contribution in the present, in formal and informal spheres of politics is the deep rooted pervasiveness of patriarchy and a concomitant militarisation of state and society. Despite the collective efforts of gender activists and human rights defenders towards the advancement of women in the political sphere, women have still not achieved parity of status with men in this regard.

Prominent figures from Bangladesh like Rasheda K Chowdhury, Former Advisor of the Caretaker Government and Executive Director, CAMPE, Advocate Tarana Halim, Member of Parliament and Advocate Sultana Kamal, Executive Director, Ain O Salish Kendra, attended and spoke at the conference.

Sultana Kamal implied that although women have held the highest posts in government this does not necessarily indicate that women in general are more empowered. “Women make up 18.6 percent and 65 of 345 seats of the parliament,” she said. Unfortunately, the general condition of women had not changed with such representation. “Women are still kept out of the decision making process,” she said. At the conference, Kamal explained that women are viewed as intruders in a male-dominated political world. Women have to stay dependent on the goodwill of others to change their lives. “Together with violence, pressure from religion, discrimination in the family life and lack of information, women fail to enjoy the constitutional guarantee or the existing quota system offered to them,” said Sultana. She said that these factors, which have been part and parcel in the lives of women for generations together, influence their performance in politics. “Conditions in the other areas of a woman's life have to be agreeable, for her to become an active part of politics,” she noted.

Societies, even during ancient times, greatly feared a woman's strength and success, which follows even today. A woman's activities and hard work are often overlooked. Instead, she becomes the subject of the society's character analysis sessions. According to a case story from Sri Lanka, 'Who wants to work under a woman leader…? A case of character assassination,' a woman member of the Ceylon Worker's Congress (CWC) says that she was discriminated against only because she is a woman, when she was nominated as the only woman member of Nuwara Eliya Pradeshiya Sabha. Being a young chairperson, she had to face strong opposition from her male counterparts. They were not ready to work under someone so young and also a woman. Her community had also discouraged her greatly from being involved in politics, terming it a 'dirty game.' And because people thought that it was unbecoming of her to speak with the Minister so openly and honestly, several questions had also been raised regarding her character. Finally, this hampered her prospects in marriage as well.

Women must break the walls of patriarchy that undermines their political empowerment.

According to Rohit Kumar Nepali, Executive Director of SAP International from Nepal, the states have failed to fulfil their obligations of promoting the political rights of women. “In the current political situation, men are not going to share the power,” Nepali reasons. “Women have to fight the battle within political parties and outside as well.” It is quite reassuring to find men, along with women, working towards highlighting the rights of women, particularly in South Asian politics. One of the many solutions that some of the male members of the audience suggested, was of being patient. Patience along with a slow, steady and a calm self can lead women to attaining their goals, they said. Anis Haroon, the Chairperson of Women Commission on the Status of Women, Pakistan however retorted that it is not possible to stay patient and calm any longer. “We cannot let our whole lives go by being patient, slow and steady,” she said. “A woman has the right to speak up and act accordingly. Now it is not the time to wait anymore.” Referring to the violence that women face in regional politics, she said that politics has become “criminalised in Pakistan after the war on terror was imposed,” making it all the more unsafe for women. Haroon called on organisations, namely the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) to implement international instruments and maintain the woman's position in South Asian politics.

While having greater participation of women in parliament, at the local government level is a great step forward for political empowerment, it cannot have any real meaning if it is not accompanied by greater acceptance of their status by their male counterparts and society in general.


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