As the Union Parishad (UP) elections have started the Local Governance Program SHARIQUE, implemented by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation (HSI), considers the period as an opportunity to advocate for one of the program’s advocacy issues, which is increasing women’s representation in local government.
To reach a broader audience locally and to engage local government representatives, politicians and local administration in increasing women contestants in both reserved and general seats in the UP elections, SHARIQUE and BIGD held an awareness-raising discussion on March 10, 2016 at Shaheed Abul Hossain Auditorium, Sunamganj.
The event was an interactive platform where some research findings and field observations on women’s participation in both reserved and general seats were presented by guest speaker Prof. Suchita Sharmin, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka.
Following the presentation, a discussion under the facilitation of BIGD Senior Researcher Ms. Syeda Salina Aziz was held, where participants gave their views and shared experiences on the issue. Dr. Shanawez Hossain, Research Fellow and Team Leader of SHARIQUE, BIGD; Mr. Rafiqul Islam Talukdar, Senior Programme Manager, BIGD, and Mr. Amir Uddin, Field Coordinator, HSI participated in the discussion, among others.
Expressing concern over her eligibility to contest the upcoming elections Ms. Mahfuza Akter Rina, reserved seat Member from Salukabad Union, Bishwambharpur Upazila said, currently nominations are being collected from the field and political parties are favouring male candidates as they have affiliations with politicians. `I am seeking nomination for general seats this time but people are discouraging me because I do not have the political connections. I am worried whether my nomination for general seats will be accepted or not,' said Mahfuza.
Local government experts and practitioners have observed that in some regions there exists a lack of awareness of the fact that women can contest general seats as well. This observation came up again during the discussion. For instance, Ms. Orpona Sutradhar, another reserved seat Member from Rajanagar Union, Derai Upazila said, majority of women candidates do not know that they can contest general seats too.
Prof. Porimol Kanti Dey (Rtd.) of Sunamganj College said, the system of reserved seats should be abolished because it gives the impression that a certain number of seats already exists for women, so why do they need to contest general seats. Similarly, when we say that political parties should ensure 33% women representation in their committees, we are implicitly indicating that around 70% or the majority of committee members are men. Therefore, instead of keeping reserved seats, if every Ward has alternatively one male member and one female member, gender disparity in the local government could be removed to some extent. Similar opinion was expressed by Mr. Nurul Haque Talukdar, Chairman of Tanore UP, Derai Upazila.
Research findings of other organisations have long revealed women are not able to function effectively in the Upazila and Union Parishads because of capacity constraints. Highlighting this limitation Ms. Sabekunnahar Shilpi, Vice Chairman, Dharmapasha Upazila Parishad, said, although a woman represents three Wards, she is not given the due respect, resources or authority that a male member gets while representing only one Ward. If women are trained on the relevant legislative provisions soon after they get elected, they will be more aware of their roles. In addition, the government should introduce a minimum literacy rate to ensure efficient participation of women.
Commenting on the Representation of the People Order (RPO)’s provision of keeping 33% women’s representation in party committees, Mr. Abu Sayeed Md. Khalid, former General Secretary of District BNP, said, currently, the Parishads do not function properly and the very demand for party workers is absent. This provision can only be fulfilled if the local government is active and there are lots of actions going on at the local level.
Mr. Ruhul Amin, Co-Secretary of Taherpur Upazila BNP, said we men have to change our perceptions of women and step aside from our patriarchal mentality. We have to allow our wives and sisters to become elected representatives, otherwise how can we expect them to get ahead?
On the other hand, expressing his frustration Mr. Nurul Haque Afindi, Secretary of Jamalganj Upazila BNP said, I personally have tried to ensure 10-15% of women’s representation in all political activities of my party, but I am disappointed so far because no woman participates.
Mr. Md. Shahjahan, Chairman of Surma UP, Dowarabazar Upazila, said, “In this regard, women themselves have to step up as well and be more active in demanding their rights.”
Concluding the discussion and urging local politicians to nominate women for both general and reserved seats, researchers and representatives of BIGD and SHARIQUE said that women can easily get access to the public. As elected representatives, they are the nearest to citizens and can share their joys and sorrows, hopes and dreams. Therefore, building women leadership locally can help political parties in getting closer to ordinary people and identifying the needs of their constituencies. Nominating women for the post of UP Chair and supporting them to contest general seats will also demonstrate party commitment to internal democracy.