Women and Politics in Global Perspective:Women and politics in Bangladesh

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Women and Politics in Global Perspective:Women and politics in Bangladesh


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.

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.<href=”#_ftn1″ name=”_ftnref1″ title=””>[1]

Conway defines political participation as those activities of citizens that attempt to influence the structure of government, the selection of government authorities, or the policies of the government?.<href=”#_ftn2″ name=”_ftnref2″ title=””>[2] [3] Conway elaborates that in a political culture that emphasizes ?freedom, equality, and democracy, citizens can involve themselves in politics either for voting in elections or participating even more as an active member of a political party or running for public office. 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. As Milbrath and Goel note:

The finding that men are more likely to participate in politics than women is one of the most thoroughly substantiated in social science.<href=”#_ftn3″ name=”_ftnref3″ title=””>[3] [4] Almond also expressed identical view and said; women are less likely to participate in politics than men.<href=”#_ftn4″ name=”_ftnref4″ title=””>[4] [5] 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.<href=”#_ftn5″ name=”_ftnref5″ title=””>[5] [6] 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.

Even these days one witnesses the continuing low percentage of women politicians internationally. At the dawn of the new millennium, there are only 12 incumbent women heads of state and government worldwide and that is even including the Queens! As of 2002, only 11 countries (the Nordic countries and South Africa, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Mozambique) could achieve the benchmark determined by the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action demanding 30 per cent of women representation in the national parliaments by adopting quotas. Currently, the Nordic countries have the highest women representation in the parliament (39.17 per cent). By contrast, women hold only 15 per cent of the seats in the United States Congress in 2004 mainly because the major parties generally do not nominate them. Political parties in most countries, which are responsible for the pre-selection process of candidates before the national elections, have not yet implemented strategic plans to encourage women to participate more effectively in government and politics.

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.<href=”#_ftn6″ name=”_ftnref6″ title=””>[6] [7] 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<href=”#_ftn7″ name=”_ftnref7″ title=””>[7] [8]

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 play a pivotal role in the general process of advancement of women.<href=”#_ftn8″ name=”_ftnref8″ title=””>[8] [9]

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;

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

(f) 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?.<href=”#_ftn9″ name=”_ftnref9″ title=””>[9] [10] 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.

Theories on Women’s Low Level of Participation in Politics

Why do women show lower levels of political participation than men? Women have been depicted as politically ineffective, unmotivated, naive, invisible and dependent upon the wisdom of men.<href=”#_ftn10″ name=”_ftnref10″ title=””>[10] [11] Additionally Almond and Jr. Powell, point out that universally. Political leaders are drawn disproportionately from upper. Status occupations and privileged family back grounds.<href=”#_ftn11″ name=”_ftnref11″ title=””>[11] [12] In fact, many reasons have kept the political position of women low globally. One major reason is women’s weak access to political institutions whether due to formal or informal practices that denies women equal opportunity. Further, women face impediments in reconciling their family and public life. In addition, women often experience education that is inadequate in preparing women to take up politics as a career. In most contexts, there is a culture that imposes on women a role different from the one that is set-aside for men. Last but not the least, women often face a lack of party support including financial support, which fails to facilitate women’s participation in the decision-making process.

A UN study observed that the level of development of a country as demonstrated by its demographic and social indicators limit the participation of women in politics. In those countries where female illiteracy is overwhelmingly substantial along with low living standards and high fertility rates, the prospect of women’s participation is far less.<href=”#_ftn12″ name=”_ftnref12″ title=””>[12] [13] This is partly true. Because, despite higher literacy rate and living standards and phenomenal development, women representatives in the Japan’s Diet are low compared to India and Uganda and Tanzania. Therefore, the study seems to have overlooked religious factors and social biases that limit women’s participation in politics in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies around the world.

Scholars such as McGlen and O’Connor, Steuernagel and Ahern, and Fowler have advanced different theoretical approaches- legal/institutional, sociological, psychological, and rational choice – to explain the patterns of participation and non-participation in various types of political activities. Sociological theory stresses cultural reasons for the low proportion of public offices occupied by women. Conway argues that combined with social norms, limited educational and occupational opportunities have denied most women from achieving skills and resources essential to contest successfully for public office.<href=”#_ftn13″ name=”_ftnref13″ title=””>[13] [14]

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.<href=”#_ftn14″ name=”_ftnref14″ title=””>[14] [15] 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 1980s. 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.<href=”#_ftn15″ name=”_ftnref15″ title=””>[15] [16]

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.<href=”#_ftn16″ name=”_ftnref16″ title=””>[16] [17] 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.<href=”#_ftn17″ name=”_ftnref17″ title=””>[17] [18] Table-1 below provides the comparative position of women in national parliaments of selected countries.

Table 1: Women in National Parliaments in Selected countries.

Rank Country Elections % of women
1 Rwanda 2003 48.8
2 Sweden 2002 45.3
3 Norway 2001 38.2
23 Australia 2004 24.7
49 United Kingdom 2001 18.1
59 USA 2004 15.0
93 India 2004 8.3
98 Japan 2003 7.1
122 Bangladesh 2001 2.0

Source: Inter Parliamentary Union, Women in National Parliaments, (as of February 28, 2005).

In most developing countries, women political leaders more often than not rise to power in times of social or political distress. Both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina ascended to power in times of social and political turmoil in Bangladesh. We also observe similar scenario in other Asian countries such as Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, Srimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, and Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi of India, and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

In 1981, the Awami League (AL) chose Sheikh Hasina Wazed as their first female head of the party and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chose Begum Khaleda Zia as the first female party chairman in 1984. These two highly popular women leaders at the top of public office have entered into politics mainly because of family connections. Both are from political families who got substantial sympathy and support of the masses and the media. While Khaleda Zia was the wife of former president General Zia (assassinated in 1981), who proclaimed independence of the country, Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of father of the nation, Sheikh Mujib (also assassinated in 1975). In Bangladesh society women’s entry into politics is considerably dependent upon their family’s past or present direct involvement in the power structure and social activities.

Nonetheless, Bangladesh occupies a unique position of having had successive women prime ministers?(Begum Khaleda Zia (1991-1995), Sheikh Hasina (1996-2000), and Begum Khaleda Zia (2001-present)?an exceptional feature in world politics. Both Khaleda and Hasina are popular and powerful leaders who could catch the attention and support of lot of followers, and effectively directed their respective parties. Notably they also fought cooperatively against the authoritarian regime of President Ershad in 1990.<href=”#_ftn18″ name=”_ftnref18″ title=””>[18] [19] At present, Bangladesh is the only country in the world where both the head of the government and leader of the opposition are women. For this reason, women in Bangladesh should enjoy a distinct advantage in advancing their rights of political participation. Nevertheless, that does not portray the real picture of women’s participation in politics.

Despite having women leaders at the top, women remain highly excluded from government and politics and subjected to oppression and discrimination. Moreover, existing laws seem unable to protect women effectively from violence and economic deprivation. There is also very limited women participation in party hierarchical structure. The BNP and the AL have yet to involve women in their inner circle of advisers. Indeed, little advancement of women in the realm of politics has taken place as women face severe economic and social constraints as well as cultural impediments. Besides social biases and situational barriers, women also lack education and the support of parties and volunteers. As a result, the status of women has remained very low, dismal, and depressing. A leading woman activist of Bangladesh asserts that male politicians take it for granted that politics is a matter of black money and armed hooliganism coupled with pressuring voters to vote by visiting house to house.<href=”#_ftn19″ name=”_ftnref19″ title=””>[19] [20] Women have not been part of this rough political process.

None of the major political parties of Bangladesh such as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League (AL) have in reality emphasized women issues or promoted women’s participation in public life. In fact, the above two major parties have not been enthusiastic about increasing the share of women direct participation in politics. For example, in the seventh general election held in June 1996, the major political parties extended nomination to only 24 women candidates. It is noteworthy that the extreme right party, the Jamat-e- Islami (JI) did not nominate a single woman in any elections, as it has been always strongly opposed to gender equality and particularly women’s participation in politics.<href=”#_ftn20″ name=”_ftnref20″ title=””>[20] [21] Some Mullahs (local religious fundamentalists) openly condemn those women pursuing public life. Although statistically very insignificant, one may point out that in one union in the country namely, Kalikapur located in the Madaripur district, women are still prevented from going to the pooling centers because of local fatwas declaring that it is inappropriate for women to vote.<href=”#_ftn21″ name=”_ftnref21″ title=””>[21] [22]

It is important to note that Bangladesh has never had a women president or women in other leading positions such as minister of foreign affairs or finance. So far not a single female member of the parliament was appointed as a Speaker or Deputy Speaker. Additionally, no woman was appointed as a committee chairperson in the thirty-five Standing Committees of the national parliament during 2001-2005. Thus, women leaders in Bangladesh have had very limited access to the highest decision-making bodies.

In 1996 Prime Sheikh Hasina inducted three women leaders in her 42-member cabinet including herself. Other women cabinet ministers included Motia Chowdhuri (Minister for Agriculture) and Sajeda Chowdhury (Minister for Environment and Forest). Women cabinet members did not increase afterwards. Sheikh Hasina lost in the 2001 parliamentary elections and Khaleda Zia was again elected as the prime minister for the second time. The current BNP-led coalition government of Khaleda Zia has also included three women cabinet ministers (excluding her) in the unprecedented 62-member large cabinet. These women are Khurshid Jahan Huq (Minister for Women and Children Affairs), Begum Selima Rahman (Minister for Cultural Affairs), and Jahanara Begum (Adviser for Primary and Mass Education). It is apparent that women ministers are assigned somewhat soft ministries perceived by the aspirant political leaders. The same politically and financially influential men belonging to large political parties have always dominated government and politics and occupied more significant ministries.

Women and the 2001 Parliamentary Elections

In the 2001 Bangladesh parliamentary elections more than 56 women candidates contested in different constituencies. The major political parties nominated a total of 30 candidates. The AL nominated ten female candidates for fourteen seats. The AL Chief Sheikh Hasina contested for five seats and she was elected from four constituencies. Another nominee of AL, Hamida Banu Shova, was also elected, but eight other AL female candidates including former ministers of AL Motia Chowdhury, Sajeda Chowdhury, and Jinnatunnessa Talukder were defeated in the election. BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia also contested for five seats and she was consequently elected from all. The main reasons for Khaleda and Hasina’s victory from multiple constituencies are due to their mass popularity and the lack of credible opposition in most of these constituencies. In the 2001 elections, two other BNP nominated female candidates, Khurshid Jahan Haque and Israt Sultana (Elen Bhuttu), were also elected. Thus, BNP female candidates won seven seats out of eight contested. The Islami Jatiyo Oikya Front elected Rowshan Ershad, wife of former President Ershad, as a candidate. A record number of nine female candidates ran for election as independents, but not surprisingly they were all defeated due to lack of party sponsorship, campaign money, and group support.

In the 2001 elections, voter turnout was 76 percent, which is very high and significant compared to many developed countries. This overwhelming turnout of women voters in a dominant Muslim society could be largely attributed to women’s increasing political consciousness and special arrangements by the government, such as provision of separate booths for women voters exclusively conducted by female presiding and pooling officers. In the rural areas, female voters came to exercise their right to vote in substantial numbers defying inclement weather, the inconvenient transportation system, and disregarding household work and long hours of waiting. Observers point out that women voters came to the polling stations as the election was held under the Care-taker government?<href=”#_ftn22″ name=”_ftnref22″ title=””>[22] [23] who ensured security by deploying armed forces, police, and other responsible for the law and order situation. Women could cast their vote with out any intimidation, fear, and political violence and they turned out to do so. This indicates that although women are increasingly eager to participate in national elections, their representation remains otherwise low during most elections.

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 amount of black money as well as their own motorcycles and musclemen.<href=”#_ftn23″ name=”_ftnref23″ title=””>[23] [24] The major political parties seem to ignore ideology and compromise when considering quality leadership in the nomination process. All these explain why Bangladeshi women are disadvantaged when competing for political office against men. While money plays a dominant role in politics and elections everywhere, the extent of black money, muscle power, and violence that characterize the national elections in Bangladesh poses an extraordinary barrier to women’s participation and thus casts doubt on whether it is a fully functioning democracy. Table 2 below provides the position of elected women members to the Bangladesh Jatiyo Sangsad(National Parliament) during 1973-2001.

Table 2: Elected Women?s Members to the Bangladesh Parliament (1973-2001)

Year of


%of Women


Won in Direct seats

and by-elections






% 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 300seats)
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.

Table 2 shows that in 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.<href=”#_ftn24″ name=”_ftnref24″ title=””>[24] [25] 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 far 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.<href=”#_ftn25″ name=”_ftnref25″ title=””>[25] [26] 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.

Table 3: Elected Women Chairpersons to the Union Parishad of Bangladesh (1973-2003)

Year Total Union Parishad Female Candidates Elected Female Candidates
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.<href=”#_ftn26″ name=”_ftnref26″ title=””>[26] [27] 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.<href=”#_ftn27″ name=”_ftnref27″ title=””>[27] [28]

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.<href=”#_ftn28″ name=”_ftnref28″ title=””>[28] [29] 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.

Table 4: Female Members in the Party Hierarchy of Major Parties in Bangladesh.

Party Structures of party Total? No. of Members Female Members
Bangladesh Nationalist Party 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

<href=”#_ftnref1″ name=”_ftn1″ title=””>[ 1] Almond notes that In most countries, higher education is strongly related to political participation and skills.[1][2]

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