Women and Politics in Bangladesh

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Women and Politics in Bangladesh


The overall development of a country depends upon the maximum utilization of her people, both men and women. In Bangladesh women comprise nearly half of the total population. But the status of women is much lower than that of men in every sphere of life. Women are identified with domestic life while politics is viewed as a male-dominated public activity that is typically masculine in nature. With the advancement of time the fact has now been recognized that without ensuring women development, the national development cannot be achieved. Women’s equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women. It is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women’s interests to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved. (FWCW, 1995:1) Systematic integration of women augments the democratic basis, the efficiency and the quality of the activities of local government. If local government is to meet the needs of both women and men, it must build on the experiences of both women and men, through an equal representation at all levels and in all fields of decision-making.

This study seeks to critically appraise the extent of women’s participation in politics in Bangladesh. It also investigates the reasons for women’s low rate of holding elected office. In short, the study attempts to address the following questions. Why are so few women elected to public office in Bangladesh? Why are women not welcomed enthusiastically in political and electoral processes? What are the impediments to women’s participation in politics? Can theories propounded in the Western liberal democratic states explain the low level of women’s representation in politics and government in Bangladesh? What strategies has the government adopted for increasing women’s representation in politics? What have major parties done to increase the proportion of women’s participation in politics? Is female representation in political party management at all levels still very low? What advancement has been made toward women’s participation in public life? A study on the political empowerment of Bangladeshi women from a historical and analytical perspective has been carried out mainly for three reasons.

First, one of the most important resources of Bangladesh is its people, and women comprise about half of the population and a substantial part of workforce.

Second, recent literature on the subject is limited.

Third, the study is expected to contribute to an understanding of the present condition of Bangladeshi women’s participation in politics and in national policymaking process.

Defining Empowerment

Empowerment is a process of gaining understanding of, and control over, the political forces around one as a means of improving one’s standing in society (Kinder water: 1979). Again empowerment can be used for social mobilization, changing women’s state of mind and gaining access to the bases of social power. (Friedman: 1992). Empowerment begins when women “change their ideas about the causes of their powerlessness, when they recognize the systematic forces that oppress them and when they act to change the conditions .They see empowerment as “ a process aimed at consolidating, maintaining, or changing the nature and distribution of power in a particular Cultural context.”Empowerment, especially for women, has been on the minds of a number of scholars and practitioners, most notably Haleh Afsar (1998), Jo Rowlands (1997), Naila Kabeer (1994) and Srilatha Batliwala (1994). Their emphasis has been on grassroots, participatory methods and their empowerment potential for the “poorest of the poor” (especially women).

While empowerment requires political action and collective assault on cultural as well as national and community power structures that oppress women, Batliwala insists that women’s empowerment must include transformative political action as well. Naila Kabeer (1994) also emphasizes on the centrality of empowerment for the struggle to achieve gender equality. Criticizing the liberal and Marxist emphasis on power over resources, institutions and decision-making, she argues, however, for a more feminist approach to power, one that emphasizes the transformative potential of power within. This power is rooted in self understanding

These definitions of empowerment raises a number of concepts associated with the term. For example, power, domination, control, access, confidence, assertiveness, decision -making and

choice. To summarize, the discussion on definitional aspects of empowerment, we may say that empowerment is:

· Right to make choices and decisions about one’s own life.

· Having control over surroundings which effect their lives.


Empowerment is a process of transformation which enables a woman to identify her own strengths, skills to challenge and change her life situation, make own choices and decisions and control over surroundings that affect her life.

Women’s Empowerment framework

Women’s development can be viewed in terms of five levels of equality of which

Empowerment is an essential element at each level:

1. Welfare: addressing only the basic needs of women. Women are merely passive

Beneficiaries of welfare benefits.

2. Access: involving equality of access to resources, such as, education opportunities, land and credit.

3. Conscientization: recognizing that their problems stem from inherent structural and institutional discrimination.

4. Participation: taking decisions along side with men. By organizing themselves and working together collectively women will be empowered to gain increased representation, which will lead to increased empowerment and ultimately greater control.

5. Control: ultimate level of equality and empowerment. Here, the balance of power between men and women is equal, and neither party has dominance over the other.

Women are able to make decisions over their lives, and the lives of their family members.

The context and dimension of women’s empowerment

Empowerment is a process —– we cannot give it to people. Women’s empowerment may be viewed as a continuum of several interrelated and mutually reinforcing components:

1. Awareness Building about women’s situation, discrimination, and rights and opportunities as a step towards greater equality.

2. Capacity Building and skills development, especially ability to plan, make decisions organize and manage and carry out activities, to deal with people and institutions in the world around them.

3. Participation and greater control and decision-making power in the home, community having one’s voice heard.

Thus it is evident that the dimensions of empowerment are inter-related. Different

Dimensions of empowerment are often recognizable in the same settings, situations and processes.

Empowerment – Bangladesh case

In Bangladesh, women bear many of the marks of a “disadvantaged minority” in the social economic and political realms. The traditional society of Bangladesh is permeated with patriarchal values and norms of female subordination, subservience and segregation ( Nelson and Chowdhury. 1994, 94) resulting from discrimination at birth leading to deprivation, and access to all opportunities and benefits in family and societal life, thus putting them in the most disadvantageous position.

Bangladesh as a signatory to the Beijing Platform for Action is committed to achieving equal participation of women in politics and decision-making. The National Plan of Action formulated in line with the Beijing Platform for Action and the National Policy for the Advancement of Women, emphasized that political empowerment of women could be promoted through implementing programmers for achievement of political rights,(Matin:2001: 223 ).

Women’s involvement in political participation in Bangladesh needs to be addressed in the context of country’s social and political conditions.

Social Factors

Among social and cultural factors deep rooted patriarchal traditions, norms and attitudes poverty, lack of access to resources, low salaries, discrimination in the work place, lack of access to political party lists are noted as root causes for women’s under representation in political decision-making. Among the most common and persistent barriers limiting women’s ability to participate in politics—poverty is the most pervasive. Women carry primary responsibility for household and family maintenance. In both urban and rural communities in

Bangladesh, women of poorer families augment the income and food supplies with agricultural labour or informal employment. These dual obligations of household and paid labour leave women with very little time and scope for politics.

Political Factors

With regard to political factors any discussion must include both the formal and informal political process. The formal political system must cover the electoral, legislative and party process, whereas the informal political process includes a review of women’s organizations whose aim is to raise women’s status, create awareness of women’s issues, and build platforms from which women’s demands can be made. In seeking to find a public voice with which to demand change, these ostensibly non political organizations do in fact venture into realm of politics. – (Nelson and Chowdhury: 1994: p 95).

The constitutional guarantee of equality between women and men, the measures undertaken to reform the laws that relate to women, the ratification of international conventions for elimination of discrimination and violence against women, and the provisions in the successive plan documents to cater for resource needs to enhance the opportunities for women are all indicative of the commitment of the Bangladeshi government to eradicate gender discrimination.

Certain research studies of the manifestations of women’s empowerment revealed six general categories:

1. Sense of security and vision of a future;

2. Ability to earn a living;

3. Ability to act effectively in the public sphere;

4. Increased decision-making power in the household;

5. Participation in non-family solidarity groups;

6. Mobility and visibility in the community.

These categories are further grouped into four dimensions broadly as: — cognitive, psychological, economic and political.

· Cognitive Empowerment refers to knowledge about, and understanding of, the conditions and causes of subordination.

· Psychological Empowerment relates to the development of self-esteem and self confidence so that women are able to motivate themselves into action.

· Economic Empowerment is the ability to earn and control economic resources.

Independence in controlling economic resources opens more options for addressing one’s interests and often serves to improve one’s status in social settings.

Constitutional guarantees:

The Constitution of the People’s Republic Bangladesh drafted in 1972 guarantees certain Rights and privileges to women as fundamental rights. The constitutional guarantees ensure

Those women of Bangladesh possess full political rights with men.


Bangladesh has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against

Women noted with appreciation the emphasis given by the present government in

Bangladesh on increasing literacy among women and girls aiming at achieving education for

all by the year 2000. In its report adopted at the 17th Session of CEDAW held in the United

Nations Headquarters in July 1997, Bangladesh presented the combined third and fourth

Periodic Report where the Committee noted with satisfaction the existence of constitutional guarantee to equality between women and men as well as laws ensuring protection of women in Bangladesh. The government has withdrawn reservations about some provisions of CEDAW, relating to personal rights such as family benefits and guardianship of children.

The withdrawn reservations of Bangladesh pertain to Article 13 (a) and Article 16 (1) (b) of

The Convention. Article 13 (a) gives women the right to family benefits. Article 16 (1) (b) says

“State’s parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that men and women have the

Same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, worship, trusteeship and adoption of children.

The National Policy for the Advancement of Women, which was declared by the former

Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on March 8, 1997. The main goals of the policy are as follows.

1. Establish equality between men and women in all spheres;

2. Eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and girls;

3. Establish women human rights;

4. Develop women as human resource;

5. Recognize women’s contribution in social and economic spheres;

6. Eliminate poverty among women;

7. Establish equality between men and women in administration, politics, education, games,

Sports and all other socio-economic spheres;

8. Eliminate all forms of oppression against women and girls;

9. Ensure empowerment of women in the fields of politics, administration and the


10. Develop appropriate technology for women;

11. Ensure adequate health and shelter to women;

12. Provide housing and shelter to women;

13. Create positive images of women in the media;

14. Take special measures for women in especially disadvantaged situations.

To examine the participation of women in politics the paper concentrates on the following


15. Women’s Right to Vote;

16. The Legislature — National and Local;

17. The Party Arena;

18. Women in Leadership Positions;

19. Women in Administration;

Women’s Right to Vote

In Bangladesh, women constitute about 50% of the eligible voters. Although women are

Illiterate, underdeveloped, and lack the basic knowledge of politics, their participation in the

national and local elections have been very impressive. (Siddiqui and Hossain: 2002; 114). It is

encouraging that women are coming to the polling booths in increasing numbers to cast their

votes. (Islam: 2002: 201). In the presidential referendum of 1997, the turnout of women voters

was as high as 88.05%. In the national elections of 1979, 1986, 1988, the turnout of women

Voters are worth mentioning. Their turnout in the elections of 1991, 1996 were also impressive,

and in some case almost as equal to men’s turnout. However, during the last national

elections of the country held in 2001, the turnout of women voters especially in the urban

areas were not up to the mark.

However, increase turn out of women in polling centres does not mean their absolute

freedom to choose the candidates they would vote for. In a majority of cases, this decision is

Always influenced by male members, that is , their husbands, fathers, brothers, or some

influential male members not only within the family, but also from the locality to cast their

votes in favour of candidates who are not even known to the women.

A question arising from this is: What are the stated purposes and functions of the right to

vote? Certainly, one of the purposes in democracies is the right of the citizens to choose their

representatives for elective office by means of his/her vote.

Again, the right to vote does not necessarily indicate that women get full legitimate, social

and political recognition. Usually, in Bangladesh, the use of female voters is a means for

male politicians to get elected.

The Legislature (National)

Jatiya Sang shad or the National Parliament of Bangladesh consists of 300 general seats filled

by direct election from single member territorial constituencies. In the past Parliamentary

Election held in 2002, women candidates won from 13 electoral constituencies and captured

2.0% of the 300 directly elected or “general” seats. In 1996, women won 1.36%, in 1991, 2.7%;

In 1988, 1.3%; in 1986 1.7%; and in 1979 0.8% of the general seats. Thus it is clear that from

1979 to 1996 less than 2% of the candidates standing for parliamentary elections were women.

Reserved Seats in National Parliament in Bangladesh

Article 65, Clause 3 of the Constitution (1972) states”There shall be reserved fifteen seats

Exclusively for women members, who shall be elected according to law by the members

Aforesaid…” However, in less than ten years time this number was increased by 100%, that is,

30. The term for the constitutionally guaranteed reserved seats for women expired in

December 1987, and in 1988, the Parliament had no reserved seats for women. In 1990, the

10th Amendment to the Constitution re-inserted Clause (3) to Article 65 providing for 30

Reserved women seats for a further period of 10 years from the first sitting of the next

Parliament (that is, from April 05, 1991). As a result, 30 women were elected on March 30,

1991, to the 5th Parliament. The total number of female member of parliament in 9th parliament election is 63. Among them 18 members have been selected by the direct votes of the people and rest 45 are reserved.

Women and Politics in Global Perspective

A truly democratic and representative government cannot be established without women’s participation in the political processes. Political participation generally refers to those actions of people by which they want to influence or support the government and politics. Political participation can be both conventional and unconventional. Scholars and researchers suggest that people participate in politics for a variety of reasons such as,

(a) To show support for their country;

(b) To achieve some advantages for themselves; and

(c) To influence broad public policy.

In most countries, higher education is strongly related to political participation and skills.

In this study, political participation refers to the voting by Bangladeshi women in the national elections, their position and role in the national party structure, and running for political office at both national and local levels.

In a democracy, women should enjoy equal rights of political participation and exercise their rights fully. Historically, men have dominated the world of government and politics everywhere

Almond also expressed identical view and said, ‘women are less likely to participate in politics than men’. Women are less represented in national legislatures, vote less, and do not scrutinize policies enacted that address their needs and circumstances. Parliament like other state structures has been a male domain.

Parliament has been created by men and for men with little regard to women. Fashioned in the Western countries, the Parliament emerged as an indispensable political institution and integral organ of democratic government. Yet, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women comprised only about 14.9 per cent of the members of both the houses of Asian parliaments in February 2005. Women’s participation in politics in Asian countries and in other regions of the world is still very limited.

A leading journalist of Bangladesh, Enayetullah Khan Notes, ‘The limitations in this regard are more or less universal in all societies’ developed or otherwise, bourgeois, democratic or socialist, and the emerging newly independent post-colonial societies in the Asian and African continents’.In some developed democratic countries such as the U.K., Switzerland, United States and France women’s representation in the national parliament still remains much below than that of some developing countries like Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Cuba. In fact, the goal of achieving adequate women’s representation in national parliaments around the world remains a long-standing one. In October 2000, the UN adopted a resolution to increase women’s representation at all levels of decision-making institutions. But the percentage of women legislators worldwide has not increased much since then.

The need to grant women’s suffrage and the rationale for women’s participation in politics came to be recognized gradually around the world when feminist organizations and groups launched their campaign for achieving equal rights including voting rights and participation in the electoral process. Progress in achieving women’s right to vote has been quite slow. In the United States, freed male slaves gained the right to vote immediately following the Civil War, but women had to wait more than a century. It was not until the 1920s when it was recognized by some developed states that in order to establish government by the people and advance national development, both men and women must participate in politics.

Despite this recognition, women’s participation is negligible in most countries of the world. The issue of women’s participation in the political process remains on the international agenda.

However, according to scholars ensuring women’s equal political and economic rights has seemed to cause controversy, disinterest, and denial everywhere. The situation in Bangladesh is not at all different. Governed by parliamentary system, Bangladesh is a pre-dominantly Muslim state with an estimated population of 140 million. According to an ADB study, ‘traditionally women in Bangladesh derive her status from family. Her role includes the maintenance of her family as a social institution and as an economic entity’.

The presence of women representatives in both national and local level politics has remained rather low, although some concerned women demanded more representation in government and politics. Independent women’s groups, activists, and NGOs in Bangladesh such as “Jatiya Mahila Shanshad”, “Women for Women”, “Naripokho”, “Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyer Association” (BNWLA), “Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha”, “Democracy Watch”, and “Khan Foundation” are strong advocates of women’s rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment. They also demand affirmative action and positive policies to redress the current problem caused by continual discrimination and denial of women’s participation in politics. Nonetheless, the struggle for women’s political equality in Bangladesh still has a long way to go, despite the efforts of women’s organizations and groups.

Most world constitutions now guarantee political equality to women at least in theory, if not in practice. Pressured by the global women rights groups and influenced by various United Nations (UN) Charters and Declarations, during the past five decades or so, democratic governments have reckoned that adequate and effective women’s participation in political processes and in public life is a tangible step towards realizing women’s status and equality. Thus, Karam states, ‘Women’s equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of advancement of women’.

The Western liberal arguments in support of increased representation of women in politics are the following:

(a) Women comprise about half of the population and should be represented adequately to establish a government by the people;

(b) Women are more likely to see an open and transparent government;

(c) Women will bring a different perspective to politics;

(d) Women can broaden the political agenda;

(f) Women are more aware of the needs and issues which affect them; and

(e) Extensive participation of women in public life is likely to lower the level of corruption. However, more empirical

Evidences and substantiation are essential to support some of the above assertions and arguments. A 1999 World Bank Research Report stated, ‘Where the influence of Women in public life is greater, the level of corruption is lower’. Indeed, several scholars, such as Reiss and Mitra, Glover and others also observed that women may have higher standard of ethical behavior and may be more concerned with common good.

Arguments for Women’s Representation in Politics

Most constitutions now guarantee political equality of men and women at least in theory, if not in practice. The 1972 constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh has recognized and guaranteed equal rights to women to participate in all aspects of public life. Thus, Article 28(1) stipulates ‘the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’. Again Article 28(2) states, ‘Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the state and public life.’ Besides these, Articles 9-10 and 37-39 also clearly proclaim that steps should be taken to ensure women’s participation in all spheres of state and public life.

In addition, in order to safeguard women’s rights, the Bangladesh government has also enacted various legislation such as the Women and Children Repression Act 1995 (amended in 2000) and the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 (amended in 1982). Despite all these guarantees to protect women’s rights and eliminate discrimination against women, Bangladeshi women are disadvantaged and denied equal rights with men. Consequently, women cannot participate in the equally in the development process.

Moreover, popular history has not sufficiently documented the political contribution that women have made to Bangladesh society. One may recall here that Bangladeshi women did participate in the anti-British political movement in the 1930s and 1940s. In the aftermath of independence in 1947, women also participated in the autonomy and democratic movements when Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan. Although women have played a significant role in the liberation struggle of Bangladesh in 1971, their historical contributions remain largely invisible.

Women for the first time exercised their voting rights in Bangladesh when it was a part of Pakistan. Women voted in the 1954 East Pakistan Provincial Assembly Elections where only one woman was elected despite that there was a provision for ten reserved seats for women at that time. Women also exercised their voting rights in the 1970 general elections of Pakistan. It may be stated here that the government of Bangladesh established the Ministry of Women Affairs to mainstreaming women in the development process and promoting gender equality and empowerment of women. In fact Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world that set up a separate ministry for women. Still, during the past decades, Bangladesh has one of the lowest levels of women participation in politics. In the first general election in 1973, only two women were nominated by the major parties and both women were defeated in the elections.

Consequently, women’s active participation in politics and government was unusual and minimal until the early 1980’s. Women’s participation in politics was widely discouraged and denied by the major political parties. In particular, the religious-based political parties such as the Jamat- e – Islami did not believe in gender equality and viewed women’s direct participation as “anti-Islamic”. This impelled analyst to argue that economic and social empowerment of women cannot be advanced unless Bangladeshi women are brought into and made a part of the political institutions.

Undoubtedly, of the most vital resources of Bangladesh are its people. Women make up nearly half of the population and work force of Bangladesh. It is essential that they participate in sufficient numbers in politics and government to ensure a truly democratic and representative government. But women’s participation in politics continues to be discouraged, denied and resisted. As pointed out by Choudhury, ‘In Bangladesh, women have remained outside the play of power politics. Their visibility in popular struggle for democracy, in election campaigns and in community work has not translated into greater influence in public domain. Only a small number have been able to enter positions of public decision making’. Particularly in recent years, it is alleged that there is a set price for securing a party’s nomination. With meager financial resources, women are highly disadvantaged to gain preference of the political parties. Even if they have money they may not gain party nomination because they are women. An international survey conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union demonstrates that Bangladesh ranked 122 globally out of 184 countries with only 2.0 per cent of women members in the national parliament in 2001.

Running for the Bangladesh Parliament is actually a tough and strenuous exercise because of the rising high levels of campaign costs and pre and post elections violence. These reasons deter women from entering direct politics and contesting in elections. Moreover, women candidates in parliamentary elections generally do not have full-fledged campaign strategy, sufficient volunteers, and a broad network. They are not at all enthusiastic to give shelter to the hooligans in order to capture pooling centers. As pointed out by an observer, in order to capture the pooling booths; and purchase voters, motorcycles, and gangster, the major parties prefer to nominate those who have enormous

Elected Women’s Members to the Bangladesh Parliament (1973-2001)

Year of


% of Women


Won in

Direct seats

and by-







% of women in

the parliament

1973 0.3 0 0 15 4.8

(out of 315 seats)

1979 0.9 0+2 2 30 9.69

(out of 330 seats)

1986 1.3 5+2 7 30 11.21

(out of 330 seats)

1988 0.7 4 4 0 1.33

(out of 300 seats)

1991 1.5 8 +1 9 30 11.81

(out of 330 seats)

1996 1.36 13+2 15 30 13.03

(out of 330 seats)

2001 1.79 6 6 0 2.00

Source: Election Commission of Bangladesh.

1996, the Bangladesh Parliament had the highest representation of women (13.03) including the reserved seats. However, both in the 1988 and 2001 Parliaments, the provision for 30 reserved seats for women were not maintained, which resulted in fewer women represented in the Parliament. In respect of the reservation of seats for women, the debate continues. The Election Commission of Bangladesh observed that ‘whether the present system of reservation of 30 seats for women in the parliament should be continued in its present form or in some other suitable system should be reviewed.’Women leaders demand that there should be at least 100 seats in the national parliament where women representatives would be elected by the direct voting of the electorate.

Women organizations/groups, and women celebrities and activists such as Nazma Choudhury, Rounaq Jahan, Rokeya Afzal, Mahmuda Islam, Ayesha Khanam, Tasmima Hossain, Maleka Begum, Farida Akhter, and Sultana Kamal are opposed to the previous pattern of reserved seats in the national parliament. Women leaders and activists also demand an increase in the women’s quota reservation as well as direct election to those seats. Their argument seems be reasonably based because the provision of reserved seats as well as direct elections for women representatives at both local level and municipal elections already exists. In fact, during the past decades, different women organizations have been demanding direct election for the reserved seats to enable them to represent the people and not the party in power. They held lot of conferences, seminars, discussion meetings, and organized human chains to realize their demands. In addition, women organizations also handed over submissions and memorandums to the government, the main opposition party, and national parliament. Women activists believe that mere increase in the reserved seats will not bring any qualitative change in women’s participation in politics. They argue that with no accountability to any constituency, the provision of reserved seats restricts women’s effective participation in the decision-making process as they only serve as the supporters of the majority party in the parliament. Despite the fact that leaders of the two major political parties are women, politics in Bangladesh continues to be an absolute male domain. The nomination of fewer women candidates by the major political parties and absence of quota reservation have been responsible for the very low percentage of elected women to parliament in 2001. The provision for 45 reserved seats for women for 10 years was created with the passing of 14th constitution Amendment Bill, 2004. Later, the women seats were distributed proportionately s per elected representation of different political parties in the parliament

Women’s Participation in Local Level Politics

Article 9 of the Bangladesh constitution proclaims that, ‘The state shall encourage local government institutions composed of representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions special representation shall be given, as far as possible, to peasants, workers, and women. The lowest level of local government in Bangladesh is known as the Union Parishad. At the local level, women’s representation is still insignificant, but is gradually growing. In the 1973 local government elections, for the first time, only one woman was elected as chairperson. In the 1977 and 1984 local government elections, four women won as chairpersons respectively. In the 2001 Union Parishad (UP) elections, as many as 102 women candidates contested for 4,443 UP chairmanship positions countrywide where only 20 women were elected. However, in the 2003 Union Parishad elections, the number of women candidates who contested for the position of UP chairmanships increased to 232 from 102 in 1997. But this does not mean that the major parties and the media are encouraging women leaders who enter into politics at the local level. At present, there is not a single woman city mayor in Bangladesh. No women received a nomination from the major parties to contest for the mayoral position to the six-city corporation’s elections. For the first time in 1994, as many as 19 women ward commissioners were elected to the reserved seats of the Dhaka City Corporations. Table-3 provides the data of the elected female chairpersons to the Union Parishad of Bangladesh during 1973- 2003.

Elected Women Chairpersons to the Union Parishad of Bangladesh (1973-2003)

Year Total Union

Parish ad



Elected Female


1973 4,352 Not available 1
1977 4,352 Not available 4
1984 4,440 Not available 4
1988 4,440 79 1
1992 4,443 115 15
2001 4, 443 102 20
2003 4,443 232 22

Source: Election Commission of Bangladesh, Women in Bangladesh, Bangladesh National Report, 1995.p. 9

In 1997, the Bangladesh government took a positive step to ensure women’s participation in elected bodies at the local level. The government enacted a law introducing of a direct election of women for three reserved ward member seats to each Union Parishad – the lower rural administrative tier of the local government. This step was taken in conformity with Article nine of the Bangladesh constitution. Apart from the exclusive reserved seats, women can also contest for any of the general seats. Welcomed by concerned women’s organizations and groups, the quota system provided women the effective right to be elected in local level politics. For example, 43,969 female candidates contested in the 1997 Union Parishad direct elections for 12,723 ward member seats reserved for females. Women members consider their participation in local level politics as less disruptive to family life. They are found to be regularly attending the meetings of the Union Parisad. In an overwhelmingly male dominated political environment, the quota system has enhanced the opportunity for women’s participation in politics at the local level. Hossain, head of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), found that reserved seats for women have boosted women’s confidence in their capability. But he points out that lack of opportunity to play an effective role from those seats has infused them with frustration.

Although women members attend the Union Parishad meetings regularly, very few can influence the discussions and ultimate resolutions. In the male dominated Union Parishad, female ward members hold subordinate position and cannot express their views as forcefully as their male counterpart. The male colleagues have a propensity to ignore their development proposals on diverse socio-economic issues. In addition, Salma Ali alleges that many women elected through quotas were subjected to sexual harassment by their male counterparts and were looked down upon as ‘second category’ members. It is noteworthy however, that the percentage of women willing to contest at the local level has been increasing in recent years, which indicates that women are eager to participate in both national and local level politics.

Role of Parties and Women’s Advancement in Politics

Political parties everywhere control and choose who will represent the party in elections. Thus, they play an important role in shaping women’s representation in politics. Strong party affiliation is one of the basic requirements to become selected as a candidate and eventually a position in national or local level politics. Before a woman could be assured of party support, she must be an active member and foster a relatively long relationship with a particular party. Studies on women and politics have often suggested that female quotas and affirmative action are instruments of women’s successful entry into public office. Traditionally, the major political parties in Bangladesh have not encouraged or supported prospective women candidates who wish to enter into public office. However, major political parties such as the BNP and the AL have always been very keen on mobilizing women workers and supporters to launch political campaigns, anti-government protests, and rallies in the streets to ultimately seize political power.

Despite the creation of women’s branches or committees by the parties in recent years, women still primarily hold weak and non-influential decision-making positions in the central executive committee of the different political parties in Bangladesh. A lot of prejudice though unconscious, still exists among male leaders of most political parties against women candidates in Bangladesh, as is the case in other Asian countries. The critical barriers against women’s successful entry into politics are:

(a) huge campaign costs,

(b) Not receiving nomination in expected winnable seats to the parliament,

(c) lack of strong party backing and financial assistance, and

(d) lack of powerful support base in the constituency she wanted to represent.

Male politicians always occupy the top positions of the party. Table 4 below provides women’s position in the structures of major political parties of Bangladesh in 2002.

Female Members in the Party Hierarchy of Major Parties in Bangladesh.

Party Structures of


Total No. of




Bangladesh Nationalist


National Standing Committee 15 1
National Executive Committee 164 11
Awami League Presidium and Secretariat 36 5
Working Committee 65 6
Jatiyo Party National Standing Committee 31 2
National Executive Committee 201 6
Jamat-e-Islam Majlis-e-Shura 141 0
Majlish-e-Amela 24 0

Source: Data obtained from the offices of the respective political parties of Bangladesh.

It clearly shows a very negligible participation of women politicians in the party hierarchy. The major parties have not really been enthusiastic about increasing women’s representation in the party leadership. For example, among the eleven members of the Parliamentary Board of the Bangladesh AL, there are only two women members in the Board including the party chief Sheikh Hasina. Similarly, out of 15 members of the BNP National Standing Committee (NSC), there is currently only one female member, the party chief Khaleda Zia. Acknowledging the issue of women’s low participation in politics, the AL in its 2001 election manifesto declared that the number of reserved seats for women in parliament would be increased to 60 and that direct elections for reserved seats for women would be introduced. On the other hand, the election manifesto of the BNP also promised to increase the number of reserved seats for women and provide direct elections. As of now, the pledges of the major parties still remain unfulfilled resulting in less representation of women in the national parliament.

Of importance is how the Bangladesh Constitution initially guaranteed at one time 15 reserved seats for women in the national parliament for a period of ten years, which expired in 1987. In order to redress the overall development of women’s status, the reserved seats for women in parliament were increased to 30 by a 5th amendment to the constitution that was introduced in June 1990 and extended a period of ten years. The Parliament has not yet reached an agreement whether these reserve seats should expire in 1999. The reasons could be attributed to a lack of consensus, conflict, and imbroglio between the major political parties – the BNP and the AL. Hence, the major political parties are still reluctant to advance the cause of gender equality and women’s participation in politics.

Overcoming Obstacles against Women’s Advancement into Politics

Everywhere men are more visible in politics than women. A leading political scientist and former chairperson of the Women Studies Department at the University of Dhaka observed that politics in Bangladesh remains male-dominated with respect to number, position in the party hierarchy, presence, and effectiveness in national parliament.A number of obstacles have kept the representation of women in government and politics low. In fact, the time restraints associated with women’s traditional roles as wife and mother as well as the frequent lack of family support for women seeking elected office still remains as one of the primary reasons for women’s inability to make any advancement into politics.The reasons and obstacles why few Bangladeshi women are in politics even today can be attributed to religious and economic factors, social biases, obstacles, and negative attitudes based on gender roles and stereotypes that continue to persist. The patriarchal culture that has dominated Bangladesh society with its social attitude and role expectation has placed women within the realm of domestic life or in narrowly defined work roles. In addition, most of the religious-based parties in Bangladesh, including the Jamat-e-Islami, all the time wanted to restrict women’s rights and equality and intentionally deny women’s political participation. Salma notes that in most of the Muslim societies, the fundamentalists urge the full submission of women to their husbands and expect them to always be obedient in the name of social order and religious doctrines.

In fact, there are multiple explanations for the low numbers of women in public office in Bangladesh. Besides situational barriers, economic problems and dependency, political and social violence, and lack of education and political knowledge, one major explanation is that Bangladeshi women have been conditioned not to take much interest in government and politics. They are also rarely pre-selected by the major political parties for possible winning seats. Another reason for their under-representation is that women have been reluctant to run for parliament due to domestic responsibilities. A former member of the parliament from the AL, Sajama Chowdhury, observed that, ‘Women must be encouraged to be more independent and self-reliant and that social norms and cultural values to be re-oriented’. Moreover, the problem of reconciling family life and public life has been a serious disincentive to Bangladeshi women contemplating over whether to participate in the political process. In fact, for many Bangladeshi women a political career is seen as a non-traditional choice. A 1992 UN study observes that, ‘Women’s political participation will be enhanced if social and economic support structures exist, legal discrimination is eliminated and negative stereotypes are vanished from education and media’.Clearly, these measures are lacking or insufficient in Bangladesh. The difficulty of running for office in the rough and tumble of Bangladeshi politic in addition to the continuing economic inequality, limit women’s opportunities in achieving political office. Legal discrimination may have been largely eliminated, but negative stereotypes and entrenched attitudes regarding proper gender roles mean that legal equality has not translated into any real political equality. This in turn means that women’s issues are inadequately addressed in public policy.

However, two important changes in policy have been initiated the major parties (the BNP and AL) that may ensure a continued increase in women’s participation in politics. They are: first, an increase in the number of women in the party structures and an increase in the number of women running for election and second, a strong commitment by the parties in extending women the same access and support as men to winnable seats. Therefore, the responsibility to improve the parliamentary representation of women mainly rests with the major parties. Unfortunately, the parties have shown little inclination to fulfill this change.

Gender, power and politics: global debates about quotas and women’s political empowerment

Bangladesh’s recent innovations with gender quotas in the Upazila system is part of a wider global move towards using quotas to kick-start processes of women’s political empowerment by increasing accountability to women through the creation of a critical mass of women political representatives. The central argument behind the promotion of women’s political participation through quotas is that ‘stronger political participation leads to better representation and accountability, and gradually to a transformation and deepening of democratic politics’ (UNIFEM 2008: 18; see figure 1).

The cycle of political accountability

Legislation and policy



Transforming politics


Source: UNIFEM 2008

For the present study, we are interested in how gender, power and politics shape women’s political effectiveness and so increase accountability to women at the local. This could include by:

Mobilizing public opinion to secure a mandate for actions that promote gender equity through policy and implementation changes. For example, through establishing regular, sustained and institutionalized contact with local women that enables women UZP representatives to ensure women’s voice is routinely heard at the Upazila Parishad level establishing locally relevant standards for the implementation of policies of relevance to the promotion of gender equity. For example, through ensuring that women’s concerns about infrastructure projects or beneficiary selection procedures are systematically aired in UZP meetings, or that women are involved in setting standards through citizens’ charters for the provision of health, education and social protection services Monitoring local services that matter to women and gender equity. For example by ensuring women are made aware of and involved in audits of local budgets and spending plans, in beneficiary selection procedures and reviews of final lists for the VGD, VGF, widows’ and old age allowance, stipend or school feeding schemes

Sanctioning failures to operate within the law, including by demanding answers from the local political leadership and ensuring punishment, including public shaming, of corrupt and inept officials and politicians (Goetz and Jenkins 2005; UNIFEM 2008).


Despite the fact that women’s development has been accorded priority by different governments in the consecutive Five-Year Plans of Bangladesh, women continue to be disadvantaged, deprived, neglected, and face discrimination even after thirty years of independence. The society is male-dominated while women are poverty-stricken and continue to be victims of domestic violence and abandonment. In spite of constitutional guarantees, women have not enjoyed the same equal rights as men as accorded to them. Women still remain considerably under-represented at both the local and national level of politics. There is now a general consensus among women’s organizations and groups and those concerned over the need to increase the number of seats reserved for women as well as to hold direct elections for those seats. The major parties such as the BNP and the AL made this promise in their election manifesto. Despite the fact that top leaders of the two major political parties (BNP and AL) are women leaders, politics in Bangladesh continue to remain a male monopoly. At the onset of the new millennium, the percentage of female representation at both the local and national level has remained low compared to global standards.

Although women have made some advancement in many fields that were previously dominated by men, a career in politics is not one of them. The reasons and obstacles why few Bangladeshi women are involved in politics can be attributed to the social biases, enormous campaign costs, financial dependency, social and political violence, religious problems, lack of education and political knowledge, and situational barriers and attitudes based on gender roles and stereotypes that persist even now. The recruitment and nomination process of parties in the national elections also explains women’s continued under-representation in the Bangladesh Parliament. These various explanations for the most part substantiate Freeman’s statement that “… empowerment requires group solidarity and resources. Both of these routes were fraught with problems for women and neither was readily available.”

In sum, this study suggests that in order to give Bangladeshi women a place in the decision-making process, there is a need to increase the number of women holding political office at both the local and national level. However, any substantial increase in women’s representation in public life depends on the mainstream changes within the major political parties; the strong support and campaigning by women’s groups, NGOs, and the media; the removal of structural impediments, traditional mindsets, biases and attitudes based on gender roles, and access to financial resources. The religion-based parties are opposed to women in public office. It is likely that in the national parliament of Bangladesh as well as in the local level politics, women’s representation will remain insignificant in the near future despite their enthusiasm to provide political leadership.