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Are reserved seats in the parliament sufficient for women’s empowerment?

  • Published at 12:31 am January 12th, 2019
web-File photo of the session room inside the Bangladesh Parliament <b>Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune</b>
File photo of the session room inside the Bangladesh Parliament Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

There is broad consensus that women’s increased participation in politics is necessary for both the democratic development of the country, as well as women’s empowerment in Bangladesh

In the recently-held 11th general election, 22 women were directly elected among in 299 constituencies. Despite this, the percentage of women elected to parliament is less than 8%—not even reaching double digits.

With 50 seats already reserved for women, the total percentage of female representatives stands at 20.3%. 

Among the 22 directly-elected members of parliament (MPs), 19 are from the ruling Awami League, two from Jatiya Party (JaPa), and one from Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD). 

Last year, the tenure of the reserved seats for women was extended to 25 years. However, until the major political parties nominate more women to run for directly-contested seats, a gender balanced parliament cannot be achieved. 

Women’s empowerment in politics on the rise

There is broad consensus that women’s increased participation in politics is necessary for both the democratic development of the country, as well as women’s empowerment in Bangladesh.

To encourage women to participate in politics, Bangladesh has taken initiatives to reserve a certain number of seats for women at all levels of government–national and local.

According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2018, among 193 countries, Bangladesh ranks 92nd in the world with 20.3% female MPs. Rwanda holds first position with 61.3% of female representation in the parliament. Bangladesh’s position is better than that of the USA, Pakistan, India, Brazil, and Malaysia.

The country’s two major political parties have been headed by women for over three decades; but the number of women directly elected to the parliament remains low. 

According to the recent “Global Gender Gap Report 2018” published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Bangladesh has closed over 72% of its overall gender gap, retaining its topmost position among the South Asian countries in ensuring gender equality.

Experts say Bangladesh has been a role model for women’s empowerment in the past decade, and consequently the society has experienced a positive change because of the efforts made in this regard. 

Syeda Razia Faiz was the first woman ever to be directly elected in Bangladesh, as a candidate from Bangladesh Muslim League, in the second parliamentary election that took place in 1979. In that year, the number of reserved seats for women increased from 15 to 30.

Women members of the parliament throughout the history of Bangladesh

However, in 1988’s fourth parliamentary election, the constitutional provision to that effect had expired.

Again, the tenure for the reserved seats ran out during the election held in 2001, after the parliament enacted a law to reserve seats for women in the fifth parliament in 1991.

Meanwhile, with the 14th amendment, the number of reserved seats for women was raised from 30 to 45—prior to the ninth parliamentary election held in 2008—and then increased to 50 through the 15th amendment in 2011. 

During 10th election in 2014, 18 women were directly elected. However, five new women became parliament members through a by-election later on.

‘Reserved seats needed until favourable environment is created’

Mahabub Ara Begum Gini—thrice-elected MP from the ninth to 11th parliamentary elections, for Gaibandha 2 — said reserved seats are there for women’s empowerment.

“We still have to fight with the male population to obtain our rights,” she said. “Women’s empowerment is also needed for the economic development of the country. 

“For as long as a favourable environment is not created for women, reserved seats are an absolute necessity,” Mahabub Ara said. 

Ismat Ara Sadique—who was elected an MP for two consecutive terms in the 10th and 11th general elections for Jessore 6 — said: “Reserved seats would not be needed if men changed their mentality.”

She added: “The notion that women are not able to carry out the responsibilities of a position, as capably as men, has made the society neglect women. This notion should be changed as women have proven countless times that they are able to handle responsibilities successfully.

“Women are now more aware than before,” Ismat said. “They have learned to use their own judgment while making decisions. However, women still remain deprived as society continues to bring them down.”

Ismat also said reserved seats should be kept as long as a favourable political environment for women is not created. 

‘Women should be elected, not selected, for reserved seats’

The policy of selecting MPs for the reserved seats should be changed, President of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad Ayesha Khanam said.

“The existing policy of selecting, not electing, women for the reserved seats should be changed,” she said. “Most of them are politically inexperienced and consequently drop out after a few years. They do not even have any role in decision-making.”

They should be elected instead, she said. Women in remote areas are hardly politically aware, she added.

The women’s reserved seats should be increased to one-third of the whole of parliament, said Ayseha.

Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Sujan) Secretary Bodiul Alam Majumdar echoed similar sentiments. “The reserved seats should be increased, but the patriarchal system of selecting women for those seats should be changed. This does not empower women.” 

Bodiul further advised to follow India’s rotating system of electing women representatives. 

Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Fahmida Khatun told the Dhaka Tribune, in July 2018 that Bangladesh is improving in the area of women’s empowerment,but to ensure sustainability, priority should be given to: in skills-development, higher education and capacity-building.

Meanwhile according to the Representation of the People Order (RPO) every political party must have women as 33% of its representatives.

The provisions of the RPO 1972 were amended in 2008; now all parties have to ensure 33%, one third, of women representatives in all sectors, including the central committees, by 2020.

However, all registered parties—including Awami League and BNP—are yet to fulfill this condition.