Despite two women being the democratically elected prime ministers over the past three decades, grassroots and organizational participation of women has miles to go
Bangladesh’s politics over the past three decades can be summed up by the fervour around two people – the Awami League President and incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and BNP Chairperson and former prime minister Khaleda Zia. The Election Commission (EC) requires all registered political parties to have at least 33% women in their committees – a requirement that most parties are struggling to meet.
According to Representation of the People Order, all registered political parties must ensure one-third representation of women in their committees by 2020. In June 2017, the EC asked the 40 parties for reports on their progress. Out of 40 parties, 37 responded, but the numbers were far from impressive.
The ruling party has 15 women in its 81-member Central Working Committee, nearly 19% representation, as noted by the EC in a report.
The party’s 17-member Presidium includes four women, while the 40-member Advisory Council has two women. Noteworthy, not one of the eight organizing secretaries is a woman.
Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif defended the party, saying the Awami League will gradually have 33% women in positions of power as women’s participation in politics increases.
He said: “We are including educated and skilled women in our committees. The upside is that more women are joining politics than expected, and so we are very optimistic about meeting the target by 2020.”
The BNP is in dire straits with its paltry representation of women with only one woman in their 19-member Standing Committee – Khaleda Zia. Even so, it claims 15% of its committee members are women, in contrast to the EC observation of 13%.
The 73-member advisory body has six women, two among 10 organising secretaries are women, and 65 women are part of the 502-member National Executive Committee.
Standing Committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said women are less involved in politics because of “undemocratic” conditions in the country, but they are however including women in their committees.
“Since there is no proper environment, eligible, well-educated, and politically sensible women are not taking part in politics.”
Secretary General ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader was very optimistic as he noted the percentage of women in the committees had gone up significantly over the past decade.
“Just 10 years ago, they were 1%-2%, and now they are well over 10%.
“Women remain busy with their family life, which is a cause for their diminished representation in politics. The comparatively weaker political knowledge among them is yet another reason. We are looking for educated, responsible, and politically sensible women to include in our committees,” he said.
Among the 37 parties that submitted a progress report to the EC, the Gano Front is the only party with 33% female participation in their committees.
Among other parties, National People’s Party has 20% women in its central committee, while Ganotantri Party 1% , Jatiya Ganotantrik Party (Jagpa) 12%, Bangladesh Muslim League 6%, and Bangladesh Islami Front 1% women, according to the EC.
The Jamaat-e-Islami claimed their ranks were swelling with women, but as their registration was cancelled in 2013 after a High Court order, the Election Commission did not take them into account.
Experts believe inclusion alone does not empower, and that women need to be directly involved in the decision-making process.
The progress over the past decade in the ranks of political parties accounts for less than 20% inclusion. Under the circumstances, meeting the deadline with the criteria seems a surmounting challenge.
Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik Secretary Badiul Alam Majumder said: “The 2009 RPO was issued to accelerate the 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 proactively ensure the elimination of any environment that is detrimental towards women joining politics.
“Otherwise, women will not be able to proceed without ignoring the superstition of politics. They are up against the men in the group. So, women will have to make themselves their own godfathers to overcome obstacles,” she said.
“We need to ensure society progresses sufficiently to accommodate women in politics,” she said.
EC Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said the RPO mandated political parties to include at least 33% women in their organizational committees by 2020 and they have to abide by it.
He cautioned: “If they do not meet with the condition by the stipulated deadline, their registration might be cancelled.”