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Women’s Participation in Local Level Government (Union Parishad)


M. Mizanur Rahman & Aisha Siddika 

The role of women in leadership situations has been the subject to debate in the last two decades. At the international level, the United Nations conferences on women have, in particular, advocated the need to increase the number of women in decision-making positions. Within the Asia and Pacific region the initiatives to encourage women’s political participation have focused mainly on women’s leadership at central government level. However, women have always been an integral part of their communities and they take a very active role in village life, community organizations, towns and cities. Local government is much closer to this level of participation and is often a first step into a political decision making arena.

Women in Bangladesh live in such social system where socialization process plays an influential role to push them in an inferior and a subordinate position in society. This socialization process starts almost with the birth of a child. Through differential treatment in their everyday lives which vary by sex, a sex identity is acquired. This socialization process associates girls with the immediate environment inside home, and boys with wider environment. And this results in future with an unfavorable attitude of women towards politics. 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 perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.

Women’s unequal access in getting resources, education and training to develop their skills and also in employment will further makes women economically dependent on men. All these factors reinforce each other to keep women’s political participation low and women’s less participation in politics make them unable to keep control over the communities resources and also to associate themselves. McCormark in Bambewala (1983) mentions three factors responsible for women’s non-participation in politics. Again political participation may include activities such as; picketing, violence to convince, motivate and convince and influence public authorities in which women in Bangladesh generally are not habituate and that is why they keep themselves far from politics.  

Figure 1: Factors Responsible for Women’s Non-Participation in Politics

Political participation in Bangladesh also requires huge financial involvement. And because of this ‘money politics’ women are discouraged to make them involve in politics. Many women who decide to participate in elections are forced by prevailing political culture to spend huge amount of money. Women in Bangladesh are mainly economically dependent on their male family members. If they participate in elections with the financial help of those males, they have to return the favor by giving ‘preferential or special treatment’ (even in spite of that special treatment is wrong) if they win in that election.

In Bangladesh, the existing patriarchal system reinforces women’s dependency on men and men have strong reservations regarding women in leadership and management positions. Patriarchal values and institutions here do not demonstrate positive and supportive views about women leadership. Though Bangladesh has two women leaders in two dominant positions in the politics of the country, they are actually the ‘toy of man’, all of their decisions are influenced by any male and they seldom take any decision according to their wish.

Conventionally, in a patriarchal society like ours, women are always identified with domestic life while politics is viewed as a male-dominated public activity. Even after the completion of the UN declared Women’s Decade (1976-85), politics in Bangladesh remains male-dominated with respect to number, position in the party hierarchy, presence and effectiveness in the national legislature and other political structures or whatever other criteria are set for measuring the extent of participation in this particular activity.

Presence of women in the national parliament does not really reflect the level of political consciousness of the women of the country. The condition of women’s participation in local level politics is sometimes more acute than national politics. Women’s involvement in the political process at the local level is needed to make them familiar with the problems of the local community in general and women’s needs and issues in particular. The activities of the local level women politicians, their constant contact and interaction with the women of the local community go a long way in raising the political consciousness of women around them.

Local level government plays an influential role in grass-root level development through responding on local needs. Local government means an intra-sovereign governmental unit within the sovereign state dealing mainly with local affairs, administered by local authorities and subordinate to the state government (Jahan, 1997:92). According to the Article 59(1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh, “Local Government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies, composed of persons elected in accordance with law” (Salam, 2006). Local government at the union level was first introduced by the British in 1970, called ‘Chowkidary Panchayet’, which consists of five persons and all are nominated by District Magistrate. The only function of ‘Chowkidary Panchayet’ was to maintain law and order in the villages and for Chowkidary Panchayet’s maintenance tax was imposed on villagers.

Union Parishad is the lowest tier of local government was made subservient to the upazila parishad (Banglapedia). 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 there of) [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. According to the Local Government (Union Parishad) Ordinance of 1983, Union Parishad consists of a chairman, nine members, and three women members. Candidates for open seats can be male or female but because of being highly patriarchal society, those who are elected from the open seats are mainly male. The UP structure in Bangladesh includes a system designed to guarantee some degree of female representation by including additional 3 seats as reserved for female candidates. Participation of women in local government bodies is a crucial factor for women’s development, particularly at grassroots level.

Table: Women Candidates for the Post of Chair in Union Parishad Election in Bangladesh from 1973-2003

 

Years of

election

No. of Union Parishad

Total no. of candidates contesting for the post of chair

Total no. of women candidates contesting for the post of chair

% of women candidates contesting for the post of chair

Elected women chairs

% of elected women chairs

1973

4352

-

-

-

1

-

1977

4352

-

-

-

4

-

1984

4400

-

-

-

6

-

1988

4401

18566

79

.43

1

1.26

1992-93

4451

17444

115

.66

24

20.87

1997

4479

-

102

-

23

22.54

2003

4223

21376

232

1.09

22

9.8

Source: Authors’ Calculation on Basis of Information of Election Commission

As Union Parishad is considered as an important area for empowering, mobilizing and transforming local people for their development so from that aspect the Local Government (Union Parishad) Second Amendment Act 1997 of Bangladesh can be seen as a mile stone towards ensuring women’s equal access and increased participation in political power structures. This amendment provided direct elections to reserved 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 grass-roots level leadership. But the number of women in elective positions of chairperson and members in the Union Parishad was abysmally low and practically infinitesimal even after 3 seats are reserved for women candidates as women elected from reserved seats are feeling lack of institutional support and they are often not be able to include themselves in mainstream activities and even their responsibilities are sometimes not clarified clearly. Even those who are elected as chair or general member are often neglected in times of decision making only because of being woman.

Figure 2: Scenario of Competition of Women in UP Elections


Source: Authors’ Calculation on the Basis of Information of Election Commission

Hosne Ara Begum is an elected member of Union Parishad from Yarpur. Most of the female candidates have to face familial problem (i.e. restriction in campaigning at night, get less time because of spending a major portion of time in maintaining family duties etc. and so on), which most of the time become the main causes of their defeat in election). But Hosne Ara is very lucky that she got a huge support from her family which is very important for any woman when

She involved herself in politics. Her husband said, “It’s a matter of one’s individual liberty whether he or she will contest in an election or not”. According to her father, “The time has come for the women to get involved in the development process”. A 60 years old voter of Hosne Ara’s village Nur Mohammad said, “Why women can’t run in the elections when they are doing all other things? The girl we elected as a member from our village is the best among other contestants”.

In the election of 1997, 102 women contested directly for the post of chairperson and 23 of them elected. In general seats for members 456 women also contested against male, of them 110 were elected. Moreover, 44134 women contested for reserved seats, of them 592 were elected unopposed and some 13,437 women were elected for reserved seats. Later on another three women also elected as chairperson through bye-election. In that election women voters participated in an overwhelming number, 80 percent women voters cast their valuable votes (Islam, 2000:113). Union Parishad Election 2003 was 7th and the largest local government election in this country’s history. The election was held consecutively in 4234 unions out of 4492 unions. In this election 232 women candidates contested for the post of chairperson and 617 women contested for the general seats. 22 women were elected as chairperson and 85 won in the general seats. For 12,684 reserved seats for women, a number of 39,419 women candidates contested. Total number of female voters was 3,01,71,698 (Ahmed et. al., 2003, Khan and Fardaus, 2006).

Table 2: Performance of Women Candidates in UP Elections

 

Position

1997

2003

Participating

Candidates

Elected Candidates

% of Elected Candidates

Participating

Candidates

Elected Candidates

% of Elected Candidates

Chair

102

23

22.54

232

22

9.8

General Member

456

110

24.12

617

85

13.78

Source: Election Commission

The world has just celebrated 100 years of International Women's Day, with the theme "Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All." Without mainstreaming women in country’s development process and integrating them equally in country’s local level and central government, it will be quite impossible to think about sound development of any developing country like Bangladesh. Local government is considered as the linchpin of any country’s central government. In the context of local government, women’s concerns had surfaced intermittently and were highlighted in the government reform agenda as evident in the last Local Government Reform of 1997. A truly democratic and representative government cannot be established without women’s participation in the political processes. Political participation is a means of gaining access to the power-structure where decisions with regard to the allocation of resources amongst people and other issues of community’s concern are made. Participation in local level government is a critical issue for women mainly because it is one of the most effective instruments to improve condition of grass-root level women’s of the country. With a view to increasing women’s participation in local level government, the following recommendations are given:

  • Mass media should play an influential role to make mass-population aware about the potentiality of women’s equal involvement in local level government,

  • Held election in a congenial environment and keep at least 50% seats reserved for women,

  • Women UP member’s decision should be given equal importance in times of taking any decisions and/ or in policy interventions which will increase their confidence level and their decision making power,

  • Make women candidates concern about issues related with women’s development and their empowerment,

  • Candidates should be nominated on their eligibility (i.e., how educated, honest etc. s/he is) rather than their ability to spend huge money in election,

  • Women who are elected from reserve seats should not be neglected and should be included in mainstream activities.

Though Amendment 1997 provided direct elections to reserved seats for women in local level elections but there are some serious lacunas in gender balancing both in terms of governance policy and reform agenda. Union Parishad is the most popular democratic institution at the grassroots level. Therefore, the state of women’s participation at this level is crucial and deserves special attention to empower them as participation and empowerment are closely related.

Reference:

  • Ahmed, Tofail et. al. (2003), Gender Dimensions in Local Government Institutions, Nari Uddug Kendra, Dhaka.

  • Islam,Md. Sadequl (2000), “Political Empowerment of Women in Bangladesh in World Perspective: An Analysis” in Rajshahi University Studies, Part C, Vol.8, Rajshahi University. pp. 95-136.

  • Salam, A. M. [2006]. The Constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh (Modified up to 1st November, 2006), Centre for Information and Justice (CIJ), Shams Publications, Dhaka.

  • Khan, M. R. and Fardaus, A. (2006). “Women, participation and empowerment in local government: Bangladesh Union Parishad perspective”. Asian Affairs.

  • Government of Bangladesh (1990), “The Local Government (UPs) Ordinance, 1983 (Ordinance No. L I of 1983). Modified up to 31st December 1990”. Ministry of Law, Justice and parliamentary Affairs, Dhaka

M. Mizanur Rahman is an Assistant Director at D.Net and a Master of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. E-mail: mithinmds07@gmail.com

Aisha Siddika is a gender specialist and executive at Grameen Veolia Water Ltd.

E-mail: siddika.aisha@yahoo.com

 

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