In the concealment of the fact that women are in leadership positions in the central politics of Bangladesh, a critical feminist issue gets neglected: to what extent the existing legal provisions of gender equality are reflected in the overall politics of the country. Against the backdrop, this article critically examines the relevant international instruments, the Constitution of Bangladesh and the national women's development policy.
The most prominent international instruments on women's leadership and political participation are: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)-2015, the UN General Assembly resolution on women's political participation-2011 (A/RES/66/130), the UN General Assembly resolution on women's political participation-2003 (A/RES/58/142), the Beijing Platform for Action-1995, the UN Economic and Social Council resolution-1990, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)-1979. Bangladesh signed on the CEDAW in 1984. Later, Bangladesh also signed on the Optional Protocol on CEDAW in 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit. I have observed that these instruments uphold women's right to participate in public life, call for removing barriers to equal participation in politics and measure progress towards gender equality in politics. But practically speaking, they only have a little impact on establishing gender equality in politics of Bangladesh. I think the reason is the lack of political commitment of Bangladesh government to these instruments. Since Bangladesh is a party to the major international instruments on gender issues, the government should take steps to implement them more effectively in order to ensure gender equality in politics of Bangladesh.
Now let me talk about the Constitution which is the fundamental guide for organising governance structures and establishing agreed legal principles. I have noticed that Articles 27, 28, 29 and 65 of the Constitution of Bangladesh express commitment to establish gender equality in the country. Specially, Article 28 holds four Clauses that create scopes to protect women against discrimination on the ground of gender. Also, Articles 9-10 and 37-39 clearly proclaim that steps should be taken to ensure gender balance in all spheres of life. As per the Constitution, there are currently 50 reserved seats for women in the Parliament. The gender relations in the Parliament can't be examined unless the history of reserved seats for women in the Parliament is taken into consideration.
The 1972 Constitution provided 15 reserved seats for women members and this provision was to remain in force for ten years. Then in 1979, through the 5th amendment the number of reserved seats was increased from 15 to 30 and the period of this provision was extended from 10 to 15 years. This period expired on 10th December 1987 and therefore, the 4th Parliament did not have any reserved seats for women. Then, there were debates and discussions both in the Parliament and outside of the Parliament whether such a reservation was necessary. Then, it was decided to keep such reservation for another 10 years. To that end, the 10th amendment bill of the Constitution was passed on 12th June 1990. This amendment reinserted Clause (3) to Article 65 providing 30 reserved seats for women for a ten-year period. Until then, the 30 women members were elected by 300 general Members of the Parliament through a secret ballot. After expiration of that period, the 8th Parliament passed the 14th amendment bill of the Constitution in 16 May 2004. This amendment brings some new insights into the provision for reserved seats: a) the number of reserved seats was increased from 30 to 45; and, b) the political parties in the parliament got proportionate share of the women reserved seats. Finally, the number of reserved seats was raised to 50 on 30th June 2011 by the 15th amendment of the Constitution.
The gender equality provisions in the Constitution are in line with those in the international instruments. But the extent to which the Constitutional principles of gender equality are reflected in politics of Bangladesh is not enough. The reason, I think is that there are gaps between the visions of the Constitutional principles of gender equality and the existing reality.
Apart from the Constitutional laws, the government of Bangladesh holds an official gender development policy titled the National Women's Development Policy. This policy is particularly targeted to women since they are the marginal gender group in the society. It was originally developed by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs in 1997 with a view to improve the overall condition of women in the country. Before finalisation, the draft policy paper was shared and discussed with the academics and experts working in the field of gender. Later the policy was amended by the government in 2004 which raised controversy among the experts and women rights activists. In general, women rights activists were against this amendment. They argued that the revision was in favour of patriarchal social values. In this context, it was further amended in 2008. The latest amendment was made to the policy in 2011. My understanding is that this policy expresses its willingness to ensure women's social, economic, and administrative empowerment in the country; but it hasn't adequately addressed the challenges to gender equality in politics of Bangladesh.
Although several attempts were made to amend the existing laws, I haven't seen any significant attempts to implement the legal provisions that particularly meet the needs of female politicians and contribute to achieve gender equality in politics. Do we need to remind the government that gender equality in politics is must for democracy?
The writer is a Researcher of Political Science, University of Dhaka.