A Review on Women’s Representation in Parliament: Bangladesh Perspective

Abstract: 
Women’s equal representation in the parliament is important to enhance the nature and quality of democracy by making the legislature more representative. The political scenario in the different parts of the globe reflects a very woeful picture of women’s representation in legislative bodies. Even now, none of the democracies around the world have been able to reach the numerically equal stage in terms of women’s parliamentary representation. In Bangladesh, although women are strengthening their positions in terms of education and employment, a career in politics is not one of them. The very small presence of women in the parliament is indicative of the very low level of their involvement in the country’s political arena. Democracy cannot flourish without a fair representation of women in the parliament, the most powerful institution of democratic nations. The factors that hamper or facilitate women's representation in elective positions vary with the level of socio-economic development, culture and the type of political system. Currently, the percentage of women members in Bangladesh parliament through electoral politics is just 6.3 per cent. This paper attempts to divulge into the key issues related to women’s extremely poor representation based on the critical reviews of the existing literatures.
Keywords: 
Main Article: 

Part One: Introduction

Women around the world find themselves under-represented in the parliament. A truly representative and democratic government cannot be established without the women’s fair representation in the parliament. Women in the twenty-first century are still struggling all over the world to establish their places in party as well as national politics. However, their representation in legislatures, the most powerful institutions of democratic nations, is often limited. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), by and large women comprised only about 18 per cent of the members of Asian parliaments and world average is 20 per cent as on July, 2012.

In Bangladesh, both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition are women who, collectively, have ruled back and forth for more than two decades. This may give the impression that women are extremely prominent in the national parliament in Bangladesh. But the reality is quite to the contrary. Constitutional provisions and legislations have not succeeded in bringing about gender balanced legislative body in Bangladesh. Currently, the percentage of women members of parliament (MPs) is only 6.3 per cent that is 19 out of 300 through direct election. However, including the reserved seats for females, their percentage is 18.5 per cent. Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go for the struggle for women’s political equality in Bangladesh. We are far away from reaching the target of a minimum 30 per cent women's representation in the parliament, which was adopted by United Nations in Beijing Platform for Action in 1995.

In this backdrop, this paper focuses on the trend and actual situation of women’s parliamentary representation in Bangladesh. The purpose of this study is to examine the nature and extent of women's representation and to indentify the factors which contribute to keep the presence of women so small in Bangladesh parliament.

Methodology

This paper is written entirely on the basis of secondary sources that include review of books, journals, research reports, proceedings of seminars and internet websites.

Organization of the Paper

The paper is organized into six sections. Following the introduction, section 2 discusses the status of women in Bangladesh. A statistical profile of women in parliament is presented in section 3. Section 4 deals with the reserved seat issues. Section 5 intends to establish the causes of extremely poor representation of women in the parliament. Section 6 is the conclusion summarizing key findings, critical issues and suggestions to make the parliament more representative.

Part Two: Status of Women in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is historically and traditionally a highly patriarchal society, the essential feature of which is domination and supremacy of men and powerlessness and invisibility of women in every sphere of life. Discrimination between male and female starts at birth and continues throughout the family and societal life leading to deprivation of equal access to the basic opportunities and rights.

The women are subject to the lower status due to deprivation and discrimination. Along with restricted property rights, they have limited access to education, employment and productive resources. The male-dominated society discourages women’s involvement in activities outside their homes. Their assigned primary role is associated with the family are biological reproducers, nurturers and home-makers. They are responsible for all the domestic household works but lack decision-making power within the household. The socialization process in the family does not encourage women to take a leading role. Patriarchy reinforces women’s dependency on men and men have strong reservation regarding women in leadership and management positions (Halder, 2004).

The patriarchal social system limits women from becoming active in politics. Women have thus remained excluded from decision-making and political participation. Their potentialities largely remain unrecognized and their contributions are often overlooked. Thus, social, economic, cultural and political factors are all stacked against women though the constitution of the Republic ensures equal rights for all citizens (Hasan, 2007).

However, in recent years, women have made some progress towards overcoming the obstacles. Female education in the country has been improving. Women in large numbers are also joining income-generating pursuits, particularly in the readymade garment industry, teaching and micro-enterprises. The government has also taken various measures to upgrade women’s status in Bangladesh.

Part Three: Women in the Parliament: A Statistical Profile

Bangladesh has a unicameral parliament called Jatiya Sangsad, composed of 300 members elected through universal adult franchise. Both men and women enjoy equal voting rights and are equally eligible to contest for the 300 general seats. There is, however, an additional 50 reserved seats in the parliament (according to the 15th amendment of the constitution passed in June, 2011) for women bringing the total number to 350. These seats are divided among the political parties based on the proportion of seats they won in the election. Evidence shows that women have not fallen behind men in casting votes but they have fallen miserably behind men in contesting the election and getting elected to the parliament (Islam, 2003). The history of Bangladesh Parliament shows the marginal status of women both in electoral and representative politics. Table-1 presents the number and per cent of women in different parliaments of Bangladesh during 1973-2008.

Table 1: Women’s Representation in different Parliaments of Bangladesh

Year of Election Overall percentage of women candidates Number of Women elected in general seats Percentage of Women in general seats Number of Women in reserved seats Percentage of Women against the total seats
1973
1979
1986
1988*
1991
1996
2001*
2008
0.3
0.9
1.3
0.7
1.5
1.39
1.9
3.54
0
2
5
4
5
7
6
19
0
0.7
1.7
1.3
1.7
2.3
2
3
15
30
30
-
30
30
-
45
4.8
9.7
10.6
1.3*
10.6
11.2
2*
18.6

* There were no provisions for reserved seats in the parliaments of 1988 and 2001

Source: Bangladesh Election Commission

Women Representation in Parliament through Electoral Politics

The 300 general sates are to be filled by direct election from single member territorial constituencies. If we look at the statistics (Table-1), we see that in the 1st parliament no women were elected in the general seats. In the 2nd parliament, there were only 2 women elected for the general seats. The scenario was the same from the 3rd to the 8th parliament. The number has not exceeded 7. The current 9th parliament has the highest number of 19 women members elected in the general seats. Though the number of women is more than that of the previous parliaments, it is still very small in comparison to the number of male members in the parliament (MPs). The percentage of women MPs through direct election is merely 6.3 per cent.

Figure 1: Comparative Analysis of Four Elections Held in Bangladesh

Date No of women winning the election No of women contesting in the election
December 2008 19 60
October 2001 6 41
June 1996 5 36
February 1991 4 46

In the 5th national election in 1991, four (4) women were elected whereas 46 women candidates took part in the election. In the 7th parliamentary election, 5 women were elected in the 11 seats out of 36 female candidates contesting in 48 seats. Six women won the election while 41 women contested in 50 constituencies in the 8th parliamentary election in 2011. And in the 9th national election, 19 women contesting for 23 parliamentary seats won out of 60 women candidates.

Women Parliamentarians in the Reserved Seats

Quota or reservation of seats for women refers to the principle of organizing the composition of a legislative body, according to which a certain number of seats are exclusively earmarked for representation of women (Chowdhury, 2002). Bangladesh has used this system as a systematic tool to incorporate women in the political arena to enable women to play on a level playing field.

With the aim of ascertaining women’s representation in the parliament, in addition to the 300 general seats, a special provision of 15 seats had been made in the first parliament in 1973 for a period of 10 years. This number increased to 30 for the next 15 years through a constitutional amendment in 1979, which was forfeited in 1987. So, there was no provision for women’s reserved seats in the 4th parliament of 1988. However, the system was again revived through the 10th amendment in 1990 for another 10 years, which ended in 2000. As a result, the 8th parliament of 2001 did not have the provision of reserved seats. Through the 14th amendment, the number of reserved seats was raised to 45 in the 9th parliament. The number of women MPs in the 9th parliament is 64, which is the highest in the history of Bangladesh parliament. Including the reserved seats, the percentage of women MPs out of 345 stands at 64, which is 18.5 per cent.

Part Four: Reserved seats: Concerns and Issues

For many reasons, these reserved seats have proved less important in comparison to the general seats in the parliament. MPs in the reserved seats do not have any constituency-related function as they do not represent any specific constituency. It is a matter of great regret that rather than being directly elected by the people, they were selected by the representing political parties. Due to the mode of election, these seats turned out to be a vote bank of the winning party in the past. The two major parties Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)) always took the opportunity to use the reserved seats to form a single party government. The reserved seats also came to be bartered for the sake of building a majority alliance with a willing partner. In such cases, the leading party negotiated support of a coalition partner in exchange, of a certain number of reserved seats. Thus, this provision helped the political parties to form single party government during different times.

The following table depicts the number of political party nominated members in reserved seats:

Table 2: Members in reserved seats

Years of Election Number of seats Nominated Candidates of Political Party
1973 15 AL 15
1979 30 BNP 30
1986 30 Jatiya Party (JP) 30
1988* - -
1991 30 BNP 28 + Jamaat-e-Islam 2
1996 30 AL 27 + JP 3
2001* - -

*These was no provision for reserved seats

Source: Bangladesh Election Commission

The above statistics shows that in the first three parliaments of Bangladesh, all the reserved seat MPs were the members of the party in power. In the 5th and the 7th parliaments, the majority party BNP and AL respectively gave two reserved seats to Jamaat and three to JP in return for their support in the formation of the government.

As the selection of the reserved seat MPs depend on the will of the party leaders they have become voiceless tools at the hands of the major parties in parliament. Their strength lies in forming the party’s member rather than in being voice of women in Bangladesh (Goswami,1998).They do not have any specific job responsibilities and mostly serve ornamental functions like inaugurating programs, attending seminars and dissuasions etc (British Council and Democracy Watch, 2004). They never did anything special for the cause of promoting the issue of women within the parliament, which was their normal obligation (Anam, 2003). Because of all the above, these women MPs did not represent the women of Bangladesh in whose name they occupied those seats (Jahan, 2006).

Therefore, it can be said that in Bangladesh, women’s representation in parliament in terms of number remains profoundly weak and the effectiveness of their representation is even weaker. The reserved seats have undermined women’s representative status. Reserved seats are making women visible in the parliament but their effectiveness is not at all visible to the public. So mere increase in the reserved seats without direct election to these seats will not bring any qualitative change in women’s representative status in Bangladesh. It will only undermine their political efficacy in the legislature.

Part Five: Why are Women under-represented?

Norris and Lovenduski (1995) identified two interacting causal factors ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ which results in women’s under-representation. Often the factors are interrelated and difficult to separate from one another (cited in Halder, 2004).

Supply Factors

The most common explanation for the supply side factor is that women do not come forward and /or they are not interested in politics. They are reluctant to run for political office. Supply factors include the following:

Structure of the Society

In a patriarchal society like in Bangladesh, all the processes, values and institutions are gendered. Patriarchal values and institutions do not demonstrate positive and supportive views about women. They always accord privilege to masculinity. Patriarchal norms and institutions are deeply-rooted in the country’s politics. Because of the strong patriarchal structures, political positions for women are a privilege rather than a right. Men have strong reservations regarding women in leadership and management positions and women are being systematically kept outside the political domain. As Paxton pointed out, if women are found disproportionate numbers in disadvantaged positions in the social structure, they will not have the resources necessary to gain political power (Paxton, 1997).

Culture

Conventionally, in our culture, politics is viewed as a male-dominated activity which is typically masculine in nature. Therefore, women are not encouraged to participate in politics rather pushed into apolitical activities. In most contexts, there is a culture that imposes on women a role different from the one that is set aside for men. The assigned primary role for women is child bearing, rearing and home-making. These conservative attitudes and cultural expectations from women is a barrier to their political representation. Further, women face impediments in reconciling their family and public life. If a woman wants to involve in party politics, she has to perform dual role as a housewife and a politician. A full time public function does not spare a woman from her regular domestic chores (Kabir and Jahan, 2007).

In traditional culture, women have been depicted as politically ineffective, unmotivated, naïve, invisible and dependent upon the wisdom of men (Baxter and Lansing, 1980). As a result, over the centuries, there has developed among women a self-perception as inferior beings. A wide range of factors such as low status in the family and society, poverty, fear of social and family criticism, and particularly cultural assumptions about gender roles undermine women’s confidence as leaders. Women are very good campaigners, organizers and support mobilizers, but fear sometimes prevent women from contesting elections. As a result, prospective candidates may be reluctant to put forward their names because of the anticipation of failure.

Religion

The reason why few women are in parliament in Bangladesh can be attributed to religious factors also. Religious arguments oppose women’s participation in politics and elections. Misinterpreted religious fatwa by the fundamentalist forces creates serious problems to women who want to contest election (British Council and Democracy Watch, Seminar Report, 2004). The majority of Muslim women have to maintain seclusion; therefore, they cannot participate in political activities. Jamaat-e-Islam, the religion-based political party in Bangladesh does not believe in gender equality and even expressed its explicit preference for gender segregation in all spheres of life. This party propagates a sharp public-private dichotomy by directing women’s seclusions and subordinate status.

Socio- Economic Conditions

Almond and Powell pointed out that universally, political leaders are drawn disproportionately from upper status and privileged family backgrounds (Almond and Powell, 1966). In our political system, one needs to spend a lot of money for inclusion in it. The increasing number of businessmen and industrialists in the Bangladesh parliament reveals that money rather than political experience is necessary for politicians to win electoral nomination.

Economic dependence is the key factor that limits the political representation of women in Bangladesh. Women have extremely limited property rights. Moreover, the double burden of family responsibilities also reduced their ability to earn money. Women’s lack of access to the kind of money and patronage are crucial factors in their ability to win election (Chowdhury and Nelson ed., 1994). The extremely few visible women in the parliament in Bangladesh are from the higher economic class. Wealth is thus a facilitator for women’s representation in parliament (Halder, 2004). We have discussed earlier that in Bangladesh women have a subordinate social status as compared to men. As socio-economically, women’s status is low, political leaders find it difficult to share state power with their female counterparts.

Demand Factors

The demand side factor is related mainly to the selectors or political parties, where such parties discriminate against women’s nomination. Demand factors include the following:

Political System

The political system of a country is a determinant of a citizen’s power. The systematic change, from democracy to military rule, and from parliamentary to a presidential system and back, have left a deep imprint on the functioning of the parliaments in Bangladesh .Table-3 depicts the historical evolution of the parliaments in the context of the changes in the political system of the country.

Table 3: Political System and Parliaments: 1972-2011

Parliament Elected (Year) Political System
Elected Majority Party
Head of Government
Tenure
Tenure (Months)
1972-1974: Parliamentary Democracy
Provisional Constitutional Order 1972
Bangladesh Constitution 1972
First 1973 Awami League (AL)
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Prime Minister
30
January 1975: Presidential form of Government, 4th Amendment of the Constitution
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, President
1975- 1981: Military Rule (Presidential form of Government)
Army Chief of Staff Major General Ziaur Rahman (Zia)
Second 1979 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
Ziaur Rahman, President
35
1981- 1982: Civilian Rule (Presidential form of Government)
Justice Abdus Sattar, Acting President
1982-1990: Military Rule (Presidential form of Government)
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Hussain Mohammed Ershad, President
Third 1986 Jatiya Party (JP)
Hossain Mohammad Ershad, President
17
Fourth 1988 Jatiya Party (JP)
Hossain Mohammad Ershad, President
31
1991: Restoration of Parliamentary Democracy
Fifth
 
1991
 
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister
56
Sixth 1996 Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)
Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister
(12 days)
Seventh
 
1996
 
Awami League (AL)
Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister
60
Eighth 2001 BNP led Four Party Alliance
Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister
60
2007 - 2008: Military backed Caretaker Government
Ninth 2009 Alied Grand Alliance
Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister
46 and counting

Source: www.parliament.gov.bd/general‐4.html (accessed on 4 September 2012); and calculation by authors.

It is clear from the above table that Bangladesh has experienced military rule on a number of occasions. The country remained under military rule from 1975 to 1990 and became a parliamentary democracy in 1991. The subsequent elected governments have failed to withdraw completely from dependency on military administration (Halder, 2004). Nevertheless, authoritarianism remains dominant in the political parties and the parliament. This kind of democracy cannot be a determinant or sufficient support for women’s political advancement in the country.

Political Party

Political parties everywhere control and choose who will represent the party in elections. They are not only the sources of power and influence but also serve as bridges linking the people and the parliament. Therefore, women’s status and positions in political parties could be equated with their presence in the parliament and their candidature in parliamentary elections (Chowdhury, 1994).

Table- 4 Women in the Party Hierarchy of Major Political Parties in Bangladesh.

Table 4: Women in the Party Hierarchy of Major Political Parties in Bangladesh.

Name of Party Name of the position Total Member Women Member % of Women
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) National Executive committee 148 11 7.3
Bangladesh Awami League (AL) Executive Committee 71 8 11.68
Jatiyo Party (JP) Central Committee 346 10 2.89
National Socialist Party (Jashod) Executive Committee 112 4 3.57
Workers Party of Bnagladesh Executive Committee 53 2 3.77
Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) Executive Committee 45 4 8.89
Gonforam Executive Committee 100 6 6.00
Jammat-E-Islam Majlish-e-Amela 24 0 00

Source: Hashmi, et al, 2010.

Table-4 clearly shows a very negligible participation of women politicians in the party hierarchy. Though women have reached the top-most position of leadership in the two major parties (Al and BNP), women still primarily hold weak and non-influential decision-making positions in the central executive committee of the deferent parties. The current Prime Minister and opposition leader have held the chief position of their parties since 1981 and 1984 respectively. This unusual advancement of two women occurred only because they have not achieved their positions in their own rights, rather they are accidental leaders (Halder, 2004) Special circumstances led Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia to fill the political vacuum created by the assassination  of their father and husband respectively

There is no mechanism to guarantee women’s representation in different committees or decision-making processes of the political parties. Most political parties have separate women’s fronts but these fronts are like sub committees or fifth wheels of the party (Chowdhury, 1995). Actually, this separate party structure tends to push women to the sideline and segregate women politicians in the party to a lower status (Islam, 2003) .Women rarely  get opportunity to exercise any decision-making power within the women’s fronts of political parties. This simply reflects the existing cultural segregation of males and females in the society.

Political parties are strongly influenced by cultural and religions barriers. Jamaat-e-Islam, a religion-based political party in Bangladesh, does not believe in gender equality and even expressed its explicit preference for gender segregation in all spheres of life. There are many male aspirants who seek party nominations for parliaments and party organizational committees. They are not interested in accommodating women in positions where they themselves are candidates.

It is observed that poor party structures and odd timing of meetings discourage women from active participation in the political parties (Waylen, 1990). Traditionally; the major political parties in Bangladesh have not encouraged or supported prospective women candidates who wish to enter public office. They only pay lip-service to the issue of women’s representation. Though they made commitments to increase women’s representation in their election manifestos, in reality they nominated very few women candidates in the past elections. As of now, the pledges of the major parties including direct elections to the reserved seats remain unfulfilled.

Only a few women have been able to consolidate their strength within the party organization. As a result, they have done very little to bring more women into parliament. The obvious result is that few women secure positions in the party and the vicious circle starts ------------- very few women are considered for nomination in elections and fewer are elected resulting in under representation of women in the parliament (Islam, 1994).

Political Culture

Current political environment and culture is not favorable to women in Bangladesh. Norms, traditions, conventions and practices of politics are those of a man’s world (Islam, 2003). Institutionalization of politics is still a popular cry. Political parties hardly practice democratic norms and values. The extent of black money, muscle power, pre and post-election violence characterize the national elections in Bangladesh. The failure of institutional politics in favor of gangster politics has made thing much tougher for women. Women do not feel comfortable with this situation and the political parties do not prefer to nominate them. While women are entering into other aspects of public life, they generally are not interested in politics to the same extent because of its violent nature (Halder, 2004). That is why female students usually appear as amateurs in politics and do not follow a political career in their later life.

 Reserved Seats

Bangladesh experiences with reserved seats for women in the parliament have been largely negative (Chowdhury, 2002). Such seats are usually perceived as a transitional mechanism to lay the foundation for a broader acceptance of women’s representation. But electoral nominations in the early years indicate that the reserved seats were treated as the sole avenue for women’s entry into the parliament and the general seats as the monopoly of male politicians. Instead of placing more women as candidates for direct election, political parties argued that women would be represented through the reserved seats. The political elites have not taken pro-active measures to encourage women to contest and claim general seats. This approach to reserved seats has left the entire electoral field open to male domination and control. Instead of contributing to women’s political agency and autonomy, it accentuated their dependence in politics and reinforced their marginality (Chowdhury, 2002).

 

Part: Six

Conclusion

No one particular factor is responsible for poor representation of women in Bangladesh parliament. Rather, women’s marginalized position could be seen as stemming from a complex interplay of factors – socio-economic, religious, cultural, attitudinal, structural and political, which are all inter-connected.

Patriarchal norms and institutions are deepl- rooted in the country’s politics. Party affiliation is extremely important for women to overcome typical societal discrimination. The recruitment and nomination process of parties in the national elections explain women’s continued under-representation in the parliament. The provision of reserved seats has only increased the number of women in parliament but it has not done much to improve the quality of women’s participation. A revolutionary change would occur if women come to the parliament through direct election.

Along with other factors, the political system hinders women's representation. Democracy appears to be a pre-requisite for women’s effective representation. But lack of democratic practice by the political parties, and breaking election promises demonstrates the limited nature of democratic practice in the country.

In spite of the barriers, the women of Bangladesh are coming forward by breaking static social norms and customs and becoming involved in politics. They no longer want to be peripheral actors but want to play major roles in the parliament. The number of women in the current parliament shows an increase in women’s access to public decision-making process. More significantly, the 44-member cabinet comprises 5 women, who for the first time in Bangladesh, lead 10 important ministries like defense, energy, foreign, agriculture, home and labor and employment. The Deputy Leader of the House is also a woman.

In a country like Bangladesh, with patriarchal social structure reinforced by religious, economic and political norms, it is challenging to advance the cause of women. Here the leaders of political parties need to play a critical role in pushing forward the agenda of women’s representation. Adoption of measure such as a women’s quota in different tiers of party organizations, a quota for party nomination for parliamentary election and direct election for the reserved seats might be a better way to improve the numerical and qualitative representation of women in the parliament. Women’s organization has been demanding the above measures for a long time. Unfortunately, the parties have shown little inclination to fulfill these initiatives.

However, any substantial increase in the quantity and quality of women’s representation in parliament depends mainly on the strong political commitment of the major political parties. Political will can reduce the obstacles and create space for women. As part of fulfilling this commitment, the government, political parties, NGOs and women organizations can contribute in their own way in making the social and attitudinal change that we are, desperately, in need of. Because women are the true representation in parliament, it cannot be achieved without recognizing and attacking the problems of women in our society in its entirety.

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