Women’s Representation in the Union Parishad

Women’s participation in politics is considerably low in Bangladesh. To increase their rate of participation, it is important to first understand how they actually engage in politics. With that in mind, we conducted a study to analyse women’s political participation in the Union Parishads (UPs). We found that though reserved seats are necessary, family and community support are essential. Nevertheless, once they are elected, due to various hurdles, such as third parties’ control over UPs, they are reluctant to run for election a second time.

Researchers: Dr Sohela Nazneen; Bayazid Hasan; Towhid Iqram Mahmood; Ahmed Asif Enam; Maheen Sultan; Sahida Islam Khondaker

Partners:  SDC; Helvetas

Timeline: 2015–2016

Status: Completed

Contact: Maheen Sultan;



Women’s participation in politics at the local level, namely UPs, though increasing, still falls far below compared to men’s. Existing studies identify various barriers and limitations that women face in exercising leadership, but these studies largely ignore how, why, and in which areas women actually do practice their political agency and exert influence. In other words, there is a large gap between our understanding of women’s barriers and their exercise of politics.

Women’s decision to enter politics and their ability to act as effective representatives at the local level is mediated by various factors, including their experience of political apprenticeship, ability to forge network and coalitions, the existence of facilitative mechanisms and structures, and how power is decentralised at the local level. To understand if the system of reserved seats for women in the UPs has merely increased the number of women present in the local government bodies or it is allowing women to take on greater responsibilities and gain power, there is need for a nuanced analysis of women’s experience in local government and their ability to exercise political agency.

This study is relevant to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), particularly to achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Research Questions

In this study, we aimed to answer the following questions:

  • What enhances opportunities for women to gain a political apprenticeship and to contest elections/re-elections? How does women’s political apprenticeship influence how they exercise political agency?
  • How do women representatives engage in constituency building processes and negotiate various political and bureaucratic processes and power relations at the local level? What kind of coalitions and networks do women form for enhancing political power? How do they engage with the newly created participatory spaces (e.g. Ward Shava)?
  • What is the influence of political parties and civil society organisations (including women’s organisations) on women’s representation in local government bodies?
  • How do the Chairpersons and male elected members of the UP perceive women’s representative’s role and leadership in local government?


The study consisted of desk review and primary data collection through key informant interviews (KIIs) at both national and local levels. At the national level, we interviewed academics and civil society members. Meanwhile, at the local level, we interviewed respondents from six UPs of Mohonpur and Tanpur Upazilas from Rajshahi. We chose a single division to control the socio-economic context and the two UPs because of the presence of re-elected women representatives. Moreover, Sharique has been working in Rajshahi from the beginning and it was expected that the program would have had the strongest influence there. Secondary data were collected through a review of existing literature, including academic and policy literature on local governance, relevant government documents and consultancy reports.

Findings and Recommendations

Our findings show that most of the women representatives had not been directly involved in politics before their election and did not have a clear idea about what it would mean to be a local representative. However, among the factors that encouraged them to get involved in politics were their family background; political affiliation of their family; kinship ties in the community; request by family or community members; and their own community-level engagement and reputation. “Serving society” was the key motivation, female members mentioned, to compete in the UP level elections. But community members identified “expectations of monetary benefit” as their chief motivation.

Women UP members stated that they preferred to contest for reserved seats because it meant less competition, less election cost, and a greater chance to win. However, once elected, they felt at a disadvantage compared to men they did not have equal access to resources to distribute to voters or to implementation of projects. Consequently, many of the women who have been elected once do not seek re-election a second time. However, they did not entirely dismiss the possibility of ever coming back as a public representative.

It was also found out that women learn to deal with local-level administration and government agencies from whom they seek services and projects for their constituents and also benefits for themselves. Although they are often faced with misbehaviour and have to deal with men from “lower social classes,” women members also learn to work with male members and make compromises if necessary so that that they can share resources and benefits.

There is increasing control of political parties and Members of Parliament (MPs) over the UPs, who take a share of the UP allocations, recommend beneficiaries for various schemes and influence the outcome of shalish and village courts. All the UP members, including women, have to negotiate with this situation as best as they can.

Finally, we found that reserved seats are necessary to ensure women’s participation as both the women candidates and the voters are not willing to consider general seats for them. Credibility and reputation in the community, family support, and community support are essential. While various UP structures and processes allow women to play a leadership role and develop management skills, they have to learn strategy, political skills, and negotiation skills. Having political or family backing enables the women to be in a stronger negotiating position and forming alliances with other women members helps to strengthen their position.