Women’s occupation of public spaces should be a priority for Bangladesh
The Thomson Reuters Foundation carried out a survey that stated that Dhaka ranked as the seventh most dangerous megacity for women. While sexual violence and cultural practices contribute to Bangladesh’s failure to protect women, what is often neglected is the disparity between men and women’s experiences of public spaces and the work needed to dismantle it.
Look at all of our streets and institutions named after and populated by men, and that tells you the story of power. Yet in this turbulent period of Covid-19, one thing is clear: Some countries have fared markedly better than others in suppressing the coronavirus -- and these countries tend to have female leaders.
Unfortunately, every default public setting in Bangladesh has been designed for men, and it will take active effort to make them open and inclusive for everyone.
Traditionally in Bangladesh, women have been primarily limited to private spaces, whereas men have had freer rein to frequent public spaces. The occupation of “public spaces” could mean the simple things that women can’t fully take for granted yet, such as to hang out at a park or go running, wander without purpose, eat a meal alone, take a solitary stroll at night, mingle in a crowd.
But in this context, to add onto the lack of women’s equal rights to their own cities, “public spaces” implies women’s participation in decision-making and electoral processes. The political participation of women involves more than just voting. Political participation derives from the freedom to speak out, assemble, and associate; the ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs; and the opportunity to register as a candidate, to campaign, to be elected, and to hold office at all levels of government. In other words, even today, in far too many areas of public life, women remain woefully under-represented in decision-making institutions.
Of the 16-member presidium body of Awami League, only four, including PM Sheikh Hasina, are women, while Khaleda Zia is the only woman in the 19-member national standing committee of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. According to the progress reports submitted by the parties who claimed to have made progress, BNP had 15%, Jatiya Party 20%, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal 12%, Jatiya Ganatantrik Party 12%, Bangladesh Muslim League 6%, and Bangladesh Islami Front had 1% women representation in all committees (Foyez 2019, New Age).
The scenario is similar in the local government bodies. In the latest elections to union parishads held in 2016, only 29 women were elected as chairman out of about 4,000 unions, said Election Commission officials.
In a 2009 online discussion report of Women in Leadership roles by the UN, Ferdous Ara Begum of Bangladesh, a Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, further observed that “although two women were elected prime ministers and were in power for more than a decade, the country has not yet been able to achieve even 10% of women’s leadership positions in the public sector.” She added, “there is a glass ceiling of cultural and social realization that bars women to achieve gender equality.”
The question remains -- what are the challenges that hinder women’s political engagement and inclusion at the level of local government and decision-making? There are four main challenges.
Low levels of literacy
The levels of literacy for women at the lower level of local government are typically much lower given the high levels of poverty that do not enable them to access good schools and also the strong cultural beliefs that do not support girls’ education in rural areas. This prohibits women from contesting for some leadership roles where there is a fixed prerequisite for academic qualifications.
Lack of financial resources
Lack of financial capital often means that women are unable to raise the funds needed to collect nomination fees and money to run an effective campaign. Elections by design require money for one to set up the required structures to run a campaign, build awareness, and network with colleagues that are crucial elements for every campaign’s success.
Disproportionate family obligations
This includes the lack of family support for women preparing to run in elections, which demotivates some women from standing for elections.
Negative cultural expectations and beliefs towards women in leadership
There is still an assumption in patriarchal cultures that public space is not designed for women, and that they cannot be effective leaders by nature. Intimidation by conservative parties and religious and socio-cultural norms are also used to cut down and intimidate women in Bangladesh. Moreover, it is very difficult for women to campaign safely on the streets the way men do.
According to multiple news reports, almost all registered political parties in Bangladesh are set to miss their target of ensuring 33% representation of women in their committees by 2020. It is worth noting that this underrepresentation of women in public spaces is largely contrary to the evidence that shows that women can make a difference for girls and women when elected to political offices, and have a significant effect on legislation.
Take the global Covid-19 response for example: From Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to Finland’s Sanna Marin and Norway’s Erna Solberg, countries with women in leadership have “suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths from Covid-19 than countries with governments led by men” (Fioramonti, Coscieme and Trebeck 2020).
The reason for this varies in different countries, however; Garikipati and Kambhampari's findings show that Covid-19 results are consistently and substantially better in women-led countries and this can be explained, to some degree, by the constructive policy responses they have adopted and their “risk-averse and clear communication leadership styles.”
These women are not only an inspiration to global leadership but they are normalizing women in places of authority, and act as evidence that women are just as successful as men in public spaces.
So how can we nurture more female leaders in Bangladesh? We can address these challenges through structural changes to political frameworks and societal reforms in how we expect women and leaders to act, which can give way to increasing women’s political aspirations.
The first way is political training programs that can be incorporated in national curriculums. Mentoring, confidence building, media training, and political campaign education are all effective strategies to increase adolescent girls’ and women’s political aspirations and efficacy despite structural obstacles.
The second way is deriving support from the state to create more opportunities for women, for example, through giving more power to local governments. Local governments can support the achievement of gender equality by engendering their budgets, policy formulation, and strategies to provide, for example, gender responsive education services. This will encourage more girls to enrol and remain in school, which will enable them to provide meaningful service to their communities.
Another source of support may be derived from political parties, who are also among the most significant organizations influencing the involvement of women in politics. Parties determine which candidates are nominated and elected, and which issues are attaining national prominence. They need to provide the same platforms, information, materials, and financial support these women need to succeed as much as their male counterparts.
Lastly, grassroot politicking and mobilization is one of the foundational principles of a true democracy. In a New Age article by Foyez (2019), BNP vice-chairman Selima Rahman said that female leadership also did not develop at the expected rate at the grassroots, which was a major obstacle to achieving the target of ensuring 33% women representation in the committees of the political parties.
In this regard, local government authorities have a strategic role to play since they are nearest to the grassroot authorities. Alongside existing powerful women leaders who can make a significant difference, women’s networks, trade unions, NGOs, and the media can all provide avenues for women’s political participation.
Upon reflection, we should be asking ourselves: Who owns the world and who merely lives in it? In most of the world, that has been a settled question for centuries -- men roam free, women remain enclosed. If men monopolize the political process and pass laws that impact society at large, the decision-making process does not always reflect the needs of men and women.
Barriers like disproportionate family obligations, the gender wealth gap, and ongoing bias are challenging to overcome, but not impossible. What we need to work on is how to make public spaces more accessible for women. Hence, with a powerful leader like our prime minister and with women’s successes of the Covid-19 response, I hope we are encouraged to support and prioritize the educated and strong women to fearlessly occupy public spaces.
And finally, I hope our post-Covid world will say goodbye to our constant desire for strong, arrogant, and reckless leaders, predominantly male, and adopt a more balanced perception of leadership talent, one based more on increasing group welfare than on individual showmanship.
Zaha Chowdhury is a graduate of the University of Manchester, UK.