A stark gender disparity remains in the country’s parliamentary polls
Although all political entities in Bangladesh have endorsed women empowerment in politics over the years, nomination in the parliamentary elections continue to elude the country’s female politicians.
In the 11th general election, which is scheduled for December 30, only a handful of women have been granted election candidacy among more than 1,800 candidates.
Among the major parties, the Awami League, the ruling party, has nominated only 19 women among its 258 candidates for the upcoming polls, while its alliance partners Jatiya Party has nominated only two out of 173, and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal only 1.
BNP, along with 20-party alliance and Jatiya Oikya Front, has nominated only 16 candidates in 300 seats.
In the 8th and 9th parliamentary elections that were held in 2001 and 2008, the situations were similar: a total of 39 women contested the polls in 2001 and 59 in 2008.
For the past few decades, the face of Bangladeshi politics has been two women – Awami League President Sheikh Hasina, and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia.
In 2013, Bangladesh also saw the first woman to be appointed as the speaker of parliament – Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury.
In the 10th parliament, the leader of opposition was also a woman – Raushan Ershad, presidium member of Jatiya Party.
Yet, women are struggling to climb up the ladder of leadership and policy-making in the country’s politics.
What is holding the women back?
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, several senior leaders of Awami League and BNP said male leaders generally get preferences because culturally they have far higher chances of winning votes than their female counterparts.
“We live in a patriarchal society, where women do not get support from their male counterparts to progress in politics,” said Sahara Khatun, Awami League presidium member and former home minister, who is contesting the polls from Dhaka 18.
Sources said the Awami League’s reliance on only the seasoned female politicians and the 17 incumbent parliamentarians, who can ensure a win, came into play when its 19 candidates were selected.
“Our male leaders fear that our female leaders cannot perform like them. That is why we get only a few female candidates during the elections,” Sahara Khatun said.
Senior leaders of the ruling party told the Dhaka Tribune that around 100 female aspirants collected and submitted their nomination application forms.
Awami League presidium member Ramesh Chandra Sen, who is a member of its parliamentary board, said it was the party policy that led to the nomination of such a few female candidates.
“Awami League is a big party, and it has many eligible and experienced female candidates, but we did not pick all of them due to the party policy,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Similar to the Awami League, the BNP focused on popularity when it nominated its female candidates.
“We nominated those who are popular among the voters,” said BNP Standing Committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury.
Asked why there are such a few female candidates compared to their male counterparts in the general polls, Amir Kashrut reasoned that people are culturally not willing to vote for women.
“Our female leaders are quite eligible and tested, but to break this trend, our female politicians have to work and gain the trust at the grass roots level,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
He further said the BNP had plans to nominate 25% female candidates in the 12th parliamentary election.
Where are women in party leadership?
According to Representation of the People Order (RPO), all registered political parties in Bangladesh must ensure one-third representation of women in their committees by 2020.
In June 2017, the Election Commission asked 40 parties for reports on their progress. Out of the 40, 37 responded, but the numbers were far from impressive.
The Awami League has 15 women in its 81-member Central Working Committee – nearly 19% representation. The party’s 17-member Presidium includes four women, while the 40-member Advisory Council has two women. Not one of the eight organizing secretaries is a woman.
The BNP is in far worse situation, with only one woman in its 19-member Standing Committee – Chairperson Khaleda Zia – nearly 13% representation. The 73-member advisory body has six women, two among 10 organizing secretaries are women, and 65 women are part of the 502-member National Executive Committee.
Jatiya Party has seen a significant rise of women leadership in the past decade, according to its report to the Election Commission.
“Just 10 years ago, they were 1%-2%, and now they are well over 10%,” the party’s former secretary general ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader told the Dhaka Tribune in June.
Among the 37 parties that submitted a progress report to the EC, left-leaning Gano Front is the only party with 33% female participation in their committees.
The lack of faith and support
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, a senior female leader said political parties in Bangladesh always talk about women empowerment and encourage women to take part in election.
“But when the elections come, these parties choose males over female candidates. Even the top brasses of these political parties do not have confidence that their female candidates can engage as much as the male politicians in the party programs,” she added, requesting not to be named.
Shampa Basu, nominated by the Socialist Party of Bangladesh in the Dhaka 8 constituency, said the main reasons why the male-female representation in the elections is so overwhelmingly uneven are because the female leaders do not get much support from the party.
“The men are always talking about equal rights, but it has yet to be implemented. That is why our females are staying behind,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
Many other leaders complained that they are pushed toward the reserved seats.
“Women are still being treated as women, not as people, by all political parties,” Selima Hossain, a former minister and BNP vice-chairman, said at a discussion on women’s leadership in the general elections, organized by Democracy International in Dhaka on November 13, which was attended by around 50 women leaders of the Awami League, BNP and JaPa.
“How will women empowerment take place, if for decades women are not given the option to get nominations but are set aside to fill reserved seats?” she asked at the discussion.
What must be done?
Political scientist Dr Rounaq Jahan said the political parties often used the excuse that women cannot win in general seats because they do not have the necessary money or muscle power.
“But it is the parties’ responsibility to ensure that the lack of funds or the muscle power do not become the deciding factors,” she said. “They need to make a commitment to train a sufficient number of their female members to contest and win general seats in parliament.”
Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik Secretary Badiul Alam Majumder said: “The 2009 RPO was issued to accelerate political empowerment of women. But we believe a remarkable representation instead of symbolic representation will create opportunities for women to enter the centre of power in the political process.”
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad President Ayesha Khanam said parties will have to pro-actively ensure the elimination of any environment that is detrimental towards women joining politics.
Katie Croake, chief of party of Democracy International, said: “The women aspiring for general seat nominations are talented and inspiring role models in their constituencies. It is time for their political parties to increase women’s voices in the elected parliamentary seats.”
Courtesy: Dhaka Tribune