The number of women contestants, both for general and reserved seats in the local government elections, has declined over the years thereby questioning women’s political empowerment in local government although the Constitution and the National Women Development Policy 2011 are in favor of women’s political participation, says research findings shared at a roundtable discussion titled `Strengthening Women’s Representation in Local Government’, organized by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University, in cooperation with HELVETAS Swiss Inter cooperation (HSI) and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) under the Local Governance Program SHARIQUE-III on March 20, 2016 at the capital’s Lake Shore Hotel. The event was held to have informed discussions on how to increase women’s participation in local government elections. Ms Maheen Sultan, Visiting Fellow, BIGD presented the keynote paper at the event.
Research findings and field observations also indicate women do not feel motivated to participate in the UP elections as they are often unable to keep the promises to their voters. Women are generally passive as political actors, economic barriers, lack of proper resource allocation and confusion over their respective responsibilities have drawn many of them back from contesting in the election. Moreover, women prefer to participate in the reserve seats because the cost of the participation in the election and others are less expensive and competitive than contesting for the general seats. However, participation in reserve seats may also put women in the sidelines when it comes to contesting elections in the general seats.
Addressing the issue of small number of female political leaders in the grassroots level of the government the speakers at the event said, in the UP polls the number of female candidates is relatively fewer than before. In fact, data from the Election Commission shows that female participation in different elections in the government has decreased over the years. From 2008 to 2011, the number of female participants in UP elections went down by 1,000 across the country, according to the Election Commission statistics. To increase women’s representation in local government, the speakers stressed on increased democratic practices within the political parties, strict monitoring of EC, pro-active role of civil society organizations and media, and political goodwill.
Earlier Ms Melina Papageorgiou Trippolini, Programme Manager, SDC delivered the introductory remarks. Mr. Muhammad Jahangir, noted media personality, facilitated the discussion round where participants gave their views and shar ed experiences on the issue.
Among others, Dr. Tofail Ahmed, Local Government expert; Mr. Abul Hasan Chowdhury, former State Minister for foreign affairs; Brig. Gen. (Rtd.) Md. Sakhawat Hossain, former Election Commissioner; Mr. Zonayed Saki, Chief Coordinator of Gano Sanghati Andolon and past mayoral candidate of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC); Mr. Kafi Ratan of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and past mayoral candidate of DNCC; Ms Ayesha Khanam, President of Bangladesh Mohila Parishad; Mr. Hasan Majumder, Country Representative, Asia Foundation spoke at the discussion. Other representatives included Dr. Shanawez Hossain, Research Fellow and Team Leader of SHARIQUE, BIGD, and Mr. Rafiqul Islam Talukdar, Senior Programme Manager, BIGD.
Citing the Representation of the People Order (RPO) of 1972 (amended in 2013) provision for political parties to ensure 33% of women’s representation in all their committees, Mr. Shakhawat Hossain said no political party has been able to meet that standard. Admitting Election Commission (EC)’s failure to issue reminders to the political parties to fulfill this requirement, he urged the civil society and women activists to work with the EC to press this demand.
Dr. Tofail Ahmed said the issue of declining women’s participants from local government elections is linked to the broader agenda of democracy. The present system of reserved seats is not an effective one. In addition to having one-third of seats reserved for women, a system of Ward rotation could be introduced wherein the constituencies representing the reserved seats get changed and rotated at every election to accommodate new constituencies. Also, it is necessary to hold the Upazila Parishad reserved seats election as soon as the Union Parishad elections are over by June 2016. The EC should take the initiative to declare the election schedule for this.
According to a 2015 research undertaken by the Local Governance Programme SHARIQUE, contesting for reserved seats is more convenient for women because the election campaign costs are less and the probability of winning is higher as women do not have to compete against men. The qualitative study revealed that political parties are increasingly playing a dominant role in women’s political empowerment. Although local women are interested to join politics, the political culture is not women friendly and various social factors prevent them from doing so.
Concluding the event on a positive note Dr. Sultan Hafeez Rahman, Executive Director, BIGD said though there appears to be many constraints in terms of women’s progress in Bangladesh’s politics, the situation is improving if we look at the history of our democracy and feminist movement. Even industrialised countries were able to ensure women’s political rights after a long struggle only in recent decades. In this respect, Bangladesh, has not taken that long. Certainly further mobilising this progress requires collective and aligned actions from all relevant stakeholders, civil society organizations and media.
The following media covered the event.