The political participation of women has long been recognized as one of the important ways of empowering women is to allow them to take part in the making of decisions that affect them. Those framing the legislation providing for the representation of women in the Union Parishad (and in other councils) also probably thought that an increase in the number of women would enable them to make their presence felt by others, especially by their (male) colleagues.
Provisions have also been made in the legislation (amended from time to time), specifying the roles and responsibilities of the reserved-seat members who now constitute about a quarter of members in each UP. They have been given responsibilities for performing various activities related to women’s development and social welfare. They also have a share in the planning and implementation of projects/schemes for local development. Discussion in this paper shows that women members do more than they did in the past. But they face difficulties, especially from their male counterparts, in carrying out their responsibilities; they latter do not appear to be hospitable to the notion of ‘sharing of power’.
Women members face more difficulties than their male colleagues. They usually adopt a conciliatory approach to resolve problems; ‘hard’ strategies are not usually adopted as these may turn out to be counterproductive. Women’s equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women. It is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women’s interests to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspectives at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development, and peace cannot be achieved. (FWCW,1995:1) Systematic integration of women augments the democratic basis, the efficiency, and the quality of the activities of local government.
If local government is to meet the needs of both women and men, it must build on the experiences of both women and men, through an equal representation at all levels and in all fields of decision-making, covering the wide range of responsibilities of local governments. Women’s role in decision-making is one of the most important questions for consideration in the movement for their empowerment. Keeping in mind, the importance of women’s participation in decision-making, like the other government in the world, the government of Bangladesh has initiated efforts to widen the scope of women for participation in the development process. The Local Government (Union Parishad) Second Amendment Act 1997 of Bangladesh is a milestone towards ensuring women’s equal access and increased participation in political power structures. This amendment provided for direct elections to reserve seats for women in local-level elections. As a strategy of affirmative action for providing the structural framework for women’s participation in political decision-making and provided an opportunity to bring women to the center of local development and develop new grassroots level leadership.
This article is an attempt to explore the status of women’s participation and how their participation in local government leads to empowerment in local government in Bangladesh particularly the Union Parishad and will identify the factors that hinder women’s participation. At the same time, this paper will suggest some remedial measures to uplift this situation.
The significance to undertake this study lies with the basic premise that there was hardly any phenomenological study in Bangladesh dealing with the woman’s participation. Therefore, this study is basically based on the review of information collected from secondary sources. Like published books, reports, research works, journals, and newspapers. Some information is also collected through internet browsing.
The empowerment of women is now a global issue. Although this term is usually used for improving women’s condition, in a real sense it may be applied to any disadvantaged group of society for bringing them to the same level of advanced section. The Copenhagen Declaration of the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD) called for the recognition that empowering people, particularly women, to strengthen their own capacities is a main objective of development and that empowerment requires the full participation of people in the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of decisions determining the functioning and well-being of societies. The Report of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women called its Platform for Action ‘an agenda for women’s empowerment meaning that ‘the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities’ (Oxaal, and Baden, 1997:3).
Evolution of Union Parishad in Bangladesh
There exists a three-tier rural local government system in Bangladesh, with a Zilla Parishad (ZP) at the top, and a Union Parishad (UP) at the base. The USP, the middle tier, did not enjoy any executive power until 1982. It was essentially a coordinating body, while the other two councils – ZP and UP – have enjoyed executive powers since their inception in the 1870s. Of the three, the UP has retained its democratic character since the 1880s, while the ZP, which was democratized in the early 1920s, was brought under bureaucratic control in the early days of Pakistani rule (1947-71). Among the three rural councils, the UP plays a crucial role. Not only has it survived longer than the other councils; it has now become an important political-developmental unit. The UP has also retained its democratic character for a much longer period of time than the other rural councils. Union Parishad is the lowest tier of the administrative unit in Bangladesh. And Union Parishad is the second tier of rural local government from below. As per the statutes at present Bangladesh contains a four-tier local government structure. But in compliance with the constitutional provision, an elected local government body exists only at the union level. According to LG (UP) Ordinance, 1983, ‘union’ means ‘a rural area’ declared to be a union under section 3 (Declaration of union and alteration of limits thereof) [GOB, 1990:2-3)]. It is entrusted with forty functions. The main functions include public welfare, maintenance of law and order, revenue collection, development, and adjudication. Its source of income includes grants, taxes, rates, fees, etc. The Union Parishad
consists of a chairman, nine members, and three women members. The voters of the Union Parishad directly elect all.
Women’s participation in the Union Parishad
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh recognizes the basic and fundamental rights of the citizens irrespective of gender, creed, caste, religion, and race. It also makes provision for promoting causes of the backward sections of the population (Ahmed et al, 2003:14). Related articles of the constitution regarding women’s participation may be seen in the following sentences.
1. Article 9: The State shall encourage local government institutions composed of representatives of the areas concerned and in such institutions, special representation shall be given, as far as possible, to peasants, workers, and women.
2. Article 10: Steps shall be taken to ensure the participation of women in all spheres of national
3. Article 19 (1): The State shall endeavor to ensure equality of opportunity to all citizens.
4. Article 27: All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.
5. Article 28 (1): The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. (2) Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provisions in favor of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens.
Scope of elected women’s participation in Union Parishad
The Local Government (Union Parishad) Ordinance 1983, provides the legal basis for the formation of the Union Parishad. But it did not contain any clause for the role, power, and responsibility of the women members. After the new law was enacted in 1997, the government increased the number of standing committees set up by the Union Parishad from seven to twelve. At the same time, the government instructed that women members should be president of at least twenty-five percent of these standing committees. However, the terms of reference of these
committees and their modus operandi were not clearly specified. Therefore, a sort of ambiguity persists with regard to the participation of women members in the Union Parishad activities.
Moreover, the government by another notification directed each Union Parishad to form Social Development Committees in each of the three female wards to be headed by the female member concerned. Though the ordinance did not restrict women from contesting for the seats of general members as well as the chairman, the number of elected women members from the general seat can not be taken into consideration. Therefore, the ratio of male-female members virtually remains almost 3:1. Relevant laws/rules provide that decision-making in the Union Parishad will stem from what the majority supports. Therefore, it leaves no doubt that in terms of numerical strength women members are three times weaker than the other (male) members that clearly shows that the women members can do a little to influence the decision taken in the Union Parishad.
Socio-political profiles of women leaders
•Age: World Food Program (WFP, 1998) found that 42.78% and 25.56% of the women leaders belonged to the age group of 30-39 years and 20-29 years respectively. Quddus et al. (2001: 8) found almost similar findings, where 46.27% and 38.70% of the women leaders belonged to the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups respectively. Rahman
and Sultana (2005) found 46.15 % and 21.80% of the women leaders in the age group of 26-30 years and 31-35 years respectively. Rahman (2013)7 found that 72% of the women, members belonged to the 30-39 age group, and 19% of the women were from the 40-49 age group and only 14% belonged to the 50-plus age group. Most of the studies found a lower number of women leaders belonged to below the age group under 25 years and the age group above 50 years.
• Education: WFP (1998) study revealed that 56.11% of the women had a secondary level of education. It also showed that 15.00% and 6.94% of the women leaders had an SSC and HSC level of education. Only 5.28% of the women members had a bachelor’s level of education. Quddus et al. (2001) pointed out that 44.00% of the women had read up to the secondary level. Women having a relatively lower level education was significantly more likely to have knowledge about their roles and responsibilities in the UP, and also those women were found more to be involved in the social welfare affairs in their communities.
• Income: A WFP (1998) study revealed that 74.44% of women members did not earn any money, while 15% of them had an annual income ranging from Tk. 6000.00 (77 US$) to Tk. 20,000.00 (257 US$).
• Marital Status: In different studies, it was revealed that most of the women leaders in the UPs were married. The WFP (1998), Quddus et al. (2001), and Rahman and Roy (2005) found that 84.72%, 85.8%, and 83.33% of the women leaders were married respectively. Rahman (2013) found that 95% of the women members in the UP
• Family Legacy: In a traditional society like Bangladesh where the women’s role is highly confined to the household and reproductive activities and they are subjugated and differentiated everywhere due to myriad socio-cultural, economic, and political problems, this might have happened so. From the South Asian perspective, evidence shows that many national-level women leaders entered into political office using their legacy or political dynasty being surrogates with their father and husband.
• Linkage with Political Parties: In Bangladesh, the political identity of women’s leadership remains clandestine because elections are not held on a party basis. However, Gani and Satter (2004) found that 16.80% of the women members had a political linkage in the UP. Rahman and Roy (2005, 2006) found that 80% of women members were involved in political parties, and this was followed by 53% in 2013 (Rahman, 2013).
• NGO Background: Most of the women Chairpersons and members in the UP were found to be involved with NGOs. Rahman (2006a) found that 64.52% of the women leaders had a linkage with various NGOs and socio-economic development organizations8, 39%, and 72% in 2007 and 2013 respectively (Rahman, 2007). Gani and Sattar (2004) found that 50% of the women leaders were involved in NGOs.
• Linkage with the local MP: the linkage with the MP is extremely essential, as the MP has a direct role in local development, so it is quite natural to maintain a good relationship with the MP. Rahman (2013) found that 61% of the women members in the UP had a linkage with the MP.
Some of the major problems to women’s participation in local government include the following:
•Though the constitution guaranteed equal rights for women, the reality is that they are not seen as equal, their roles are closely tied to their reproductive and household activities only. At the same time, women are considered as unfit to perform political and community affairs. This is due to a lack of clarity in the constitution on the role of women in local government. A common complaint regarding women’s reserved seats is that the law does not specify what their roles and responsibilities are to be.
• Patriarchy as a system, an ideology, and practice impacts in different ways on the lives of women wherever they are. Patriarchal attitudes become so embedded that they are taken as natural. Even where there is supposed equality, these attitudes tend to prevail. Sociocultural norms and religious misinterpretations are used frequently for challenging and reinterpreting women’s rights and creating insecurity for women. And although women have
equal political rights to participate as voters and representatives, in reality, they can be actively discouraged to do so. The patriarchal society enforces rules and laws in such ways that affect the self-confidence of women, limit their access to resources and information, and thus keep them in a lower status than men.
• Education is the strongest factor influencing women’s control of their own fate. In Bangladesh, women are furthermore handicapped because of lower educational achievements and the prevalence of social norms that severely restrict their freedom of movement in a public place. And so they do not show interest in participating in local government activities.
• The male-biased environment within political institutions can deter women. The fact that there are few women in decision-making bodies means that these women have to work within styles and modes acceptable to men. As a result, women cannot give attention to their issues. Sometimes they are treated by their colleagues and society harshly. Many-if not all-male elected members harbor negative attitudes towards elected women members. They
believe women should not run for general seats. They denigrate the value of the reserved seats. Lack of cooperation by men in the local government is a significant barrier to women’s effectiveness in decision-making.
• The introduction of direct election to the reserved seats is undoubtedly a breakthrough for women in Bangladesh. In no other way could these women have moved into these institutions and participated in them. Still, there is a gender imbalance in the ratio of men and women in the Union Parishad. As a result, the elected women members have very limited scope to influence decisions.
In Bangladesh, women have low political status as compared to men. The participation of women results from their low socioeconomic status stemming from social norms of a male-dominated society confining women to the household. Their unequal status in society gives them unequal access to the educational, economic, and other opportunities offered by the state and society. All these factors reinforce each other to keep women’s political participation low. But women’s adequate political participation is a precondition for bringing women into the mainstream of the development process and thus empowers them. No doubt, as a step of women empowerment, the elected reserve seats for women help to promote participation and women access to the decision-making process numerically, though not practically much ensured. Due to socio-political and religious bindings, elected women cannot play their role and thus people’s aspirations and expectations of them were not met up. And without women’s access and meaningful participation in the decision-making process that is the ability to influence decisions in favor of the women community. To ensure meaningful participation of the elected women members as an essential step to empower them, the following policy prescriptions may be taken into consideration:
• Roles and responsibilities of the women members should be clearly defined in the manuals and orders of local government. Work should be fairly distributed among the male and female members in such a way so that women members can meaningfully participate in all types of functions.
• To create greater awareness among women about their low status in society and the need to improve it, motivational programs along with programs for expanding opportunities for education, health care, and employment should be launched.
• Specific programs should be undertaken by the government and non-government organizations in order to create awareness among the women at the grassroots levels that political participation would give them access to the political decision-making process relating to the allocation of resources.
• Mass media should be used to educate and mobilize public opinion in such a way that the realization of the benefits of women’s full participation in the national development efforts is created among people.
• Priority must be given to monitoring the status, conditions, and rights of women. There must be a sustained campaign for women’s mobilization, regular reporting of monitoring, public information, and advocacy in this realm.
• Women should be given various opportunities for leadership training, training regarding the activities of Union Parishad, and education in order to encourage them to take up political and leadership positions. Supportive services should be provided to allow women to participate in these training courses.
• There is an urgent need to undertake research on women’s participation in politics, their voting behavior, consciousness, and participation in political parties.
• Finally, increasing the number of women in decision-making positions does not in itself translate into greater empowerment for women. Measures to increase the quantity of women representatives need to be accompanied by measures to improve the quality of participation.
What is the purpose of women’s empowerment?
Literacy, education, training, and awareness-building are all ways in which women can be empowered. Empowerment of women also means allowing them to make strategic decisions about their lives, which they previously couldn’t do because they were considered weaker in the eyes of society.
How can women be empowered?
Make her feel better about her self-worth. To empower others, encourage the women in your life, and make them feel special and strong. Empowered women inspire others. The more you encourage your friends to speak up, the more confident they’ll be in using their voices.
What is the main role of a woman in our society?
The Global Role of Women – Caregivers, Conscientious, Farmers, Educators, and Entrepreneurs. Women play many roles around the world. Stability, progress, and long-term development have always depended on the central role of women in society throughout history. In addition, women are more likely to self-report their involvement in ensuring the health and nutrition of their children.
What are Women’s multiple roles?
Traditionally, daughters are expected to care for their parents. In her role as a wife, she is expected to take care of her husband’s food, clothing, and other needs. It’s her job as a mother to look after her children, including their education.
Women have acquired a legitimate space in rural political institutions(Union Parishad) that can raise their marginalized position, though they are still a minority. Merely having women on councils does not automatically mean that the interests of women in the community are represented. Without women’s needs and interests being taken into account, without the opportunity for them to participate in and influence decision-making, development interventions and planning sustainable results will not come. Yet, having women in these leadership positions is an important step in changing the male-dominated political agenda. At least they have the opportunity to attend the meetings, interact with officials, and take part in important discussions. It also ensures their mobility across the social hierarchy.
The 33% quota for women is indeed an important impetus to women’s empowerment in rural Bangladesh. It becomes obvious that the process will take a long time and the goal of women’s empowerment will not be secured by the quota alone. In order to support and accelerate the process one has to employ additional strategies, which promote the self-reliance of women (economically as well as socially), build women’s capacities, and remove structural obstacles