Women’s representation in Bangladesh Parliament may seem satisfactory in terms of number, but when it comes to active participation in policy-making and public service, the picture is quite different.
In the current parliament, there are a total of 71 women lawmakers, 50 of whom occupy reserved seats. The elected lawmakers are mostly from the Awami League. Despite occupying one-fifth of the parliamentary seats, the women lawmakers do not get the same space as their male counterparts in decision-making and legislative processes, and are also held back in terms of facilities and allocations.
“The difference between allocations to the elected MPs [members of parliament] and the reserved seat MPs is huge, but we work as hard as the elected MPs,” said Safura Begum, Awami League lawmaker from Reserved Seat 2.
Gender-based discrimination is also a huge obstacle.
“Competing against our male colleagues is difficult; negative bias against women still exists in the political parties. Our male colleagues do not want to see us rise, and we face discriminatory attitudes even from our leaders,” said Hazera Khatun, the sole reserved seat MP from the Workers’ Party of Bangladesh.
Reserved seats hold no authority
The provision of reserved seats for women was introduced in the first parliament in 1973, with 15 seats reserved for women in addition to the 300 general seats. The number was later raised to 50 gradually.
The reserved seat MPs are not accountable to any constituencies like the elected MPs are, and they do not have a direct role in policy-making and legislative processes.
“We do not have any specific role to play, nor do we get specific instructions from the government,” said Awami League lawmaker Selina Jahan Lita from Reserved Seat 1.
However, reserved seat MPs have to work at the upazila-level, with an MP sometimes covering as many as 12 upazilas at once, said Awami League lawmaker Selina Akhter Banu from Reserved Seat 7.
“Yet, the [financial] allocation that we get to do our work is nothing compared to what the elected MPs get,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “We get a lump sum, while the elected MPs receive three times the size of the allocation we receive.”
Workers’ Party lawmaker Hazera Khatun said: “All we can do is just raise the local issues and demands in parliament. The government does not really do anything to help us with our work.”
Gender bias still a huge problem
The political arena in Bangladesh is still dominated by men, and very few women succeed in rising up and taking the lead, said several women MPs.
Compared to their male counterparts, women political leaders do not get nearly enough backing during elections, nor the financial support, access to political networks, or cooperation within their parties – which is the main obstacle to the political empowerment of women, they added.
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“Women are still afraid to stand against men when it comes to fighting for candidacy in general seats,” said Mahabub Ara Begum Gini, Awami League lawmaker elected from Gaibandha 2 constituency.
“Our male colleagues are not supportive enough to see us grow and take leadership roles in politics,” said Lutfa Taher, the sole reserved seat lawmaker from Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal. “This is why we have lost many aspiring women leaders with great potential.”
The number of elected women lawmakers in parliament is still too small, and that is because the political environment is not in favour of women, said Shirin Akhter, the only elected woman lawmaker from Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal.
“The lack of financial support is a big factor here. Women politicians still do not know how to raise money in politics, so in most cases – unless they have support of their families – they do not get enough money to get nominations or run their own campaigns,” she added.
Another huge factor is that most women political leaders lack clout on the ground, commented some lawmakers.
“If the government wants to empower women in politics, they have to give us the opportunity to step into more active roles,” said Reserved Seat 1 lawmaker Selina Jahan Lita. “More women must be given nominations – based on their qualifications – to take part in elections from general seats.”
The lawmakers also said the number of women representatives in the House should be increased to ensure the political empowerment of women.
Rowshan Ara Mannan, Jatiya Party lawmaker from Reserved Seat 47, said: “The government must raise the number of reserved seats in parliament to 60 from 50, and at least 60 women candidates should be nominated in general seats.”