<%-- Page Title--%> Cover Story <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 156 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 28 , 2004

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Women Lag Behind


Another opportunity passes as the ruling coalition fails to address the issue of direct elections, which in turn would have paved the future of political empowerment of women.

After the passage of the 14th amendment, women leaders of the ruling BNP are again caught in the usual game. They are scrambling for the reserved seats. The hectic lobbying on the part of the wives and daughters of the deceased leaders and the ones who did not get party nomination in the last general election is something out of an old political chapter. A chapter many thought that Bangladesh would at last be able to leave behind.

But in reality changes do not come easy. An amendment has been introduced but without taking into account the real issue, which is the inclusion of women into the decision making mechanism. The issue of reserved seats for women in the parliament has finally been settled. The new arrangement regarding the reserved seats for women was adopted in the

14th Constitution Amendment bill, 2004, which was passed on May 16. The number of women's reserved seats has been raised from 30 to 45, but the demand of direct elections to these reserved seats has been denied once again. Under this new law these 45 seats will go to different political parties in proportion to the number of seats they have got in the parliament. That is, a party needs to have at least 6.66 seats to bag one women's seat.

The 14th amendment is a step that undermines the very concept of women and empowerment. Though it provides for proportionate distribution of the reserved seats, it has no bearing on the issue of women's political empowerment. Many experts are calling it a face-saver for the ruling coalition, who has passed two years and seven months without any provision for reserved seats. On May 16, the day that was already marked for the passage of the 14th amendment, speaker Barister Jamiruddin Sarker placed it for division vote and it was passed by 226 votes in its favour. With the absence of the main opposition AL, the only party who vetoed is the Krishak Sramik Janata League of Kader Siddiqi.

The passage of the bill got delayed after it got entangled with another issue, which was raising of the retirement age of the judges. The first time it was placed in the parliament was in March 17, 2004. The bill, which is officially dubbed as 'the 14th constitution amendment bill 2004' later was withdrawn on April 27 to be introduced again a day after.

Many, however, believe that the new bill will bring about any qualitative change in women's political empowerment. Interestingly, prior to the amendment everyone was ready to accept in principle that there should be direct elections, not selection, to filling out the reserved seats for women. But when it comes to translating it into reality the government or the ruling party in power has always man aged to come up with obstacles. The present Law Minister, Barrister Moudud Ahmed on a number of occasions, the representatives of the Shammilito Nari Shamaj and the NGOs working for women empowerment, promised to consider the issue of direct election. In a seminar on July 20, 2003, at The British Council Auditorium, jointly organised by Democracywatch and the British Council, the law minister even came up with four options that might provide a solution to this protracted problem of direct election. The last option he proposed included a provision of an enlarged parliament, where 64 women representatives would be elected from their enlarged constituencies. The present BNP government has time and again supported direct elections to reserved seats when they were in the opposition and, what is more, included it in their pre-election manifesto in clear terms.

But when the time came to implement their pledge, Barrister Moudud Ahmed, Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs, suddenly discovered insurmountable blocks to allow direct elections. "It is not practical," he sermonised, conveniently forgetting that while penning the election manifesto he found direct elections very practical and even "the need of the time".

Traditionally, our politicians have always been conspicuously generous in making pre-election pledges and equally ingenious in finding out post-election excuses. "Numerous high profile leaders from both AL and BNP have time and again expressed solidarity in our cause on various occasions, but nothing was done in the end," advocate Sigma Huda, a prominent lawyer and women's rights activist says. Though this last act of betrayal happened to be committed by BNP, she doesn't think AL have done any better. "The bill AL government brought in 2000 or 2001 didn't provide direct elections either," she points out.

Motia Chowdhury, an AL presidium member and former Agriculture Minister, however, refuses to equate AL's attitude to that of BNP regarding reserved women's seats. " We didn't have two-thirds majority in the parliament, so we couldn't do it ourselves. But we called upon BNP that was boycotting the parliament then to come so that we could reach a consensus about the issue and bring about a bill together. But, BNP didn't bother," Motia says. She then lists what she believes some very positive steps undertaken by the AL government that clearly reflect AL's commitment to women's greater political representation. "It was us who created the opportunity to bring in women representatives in the lowest tier of the government that is Union Councils. Besides we made it mandatory to write the mother's name along with the father's in all sorts of applications, got women in the army in the commission rank and appointed a woman justice in the high court as well as a woman DC and SP during our tenure," she claims.

An activist and a researcher, Maleka Begum, now, rues over the years lost in lobbying for direct election. She says, "While meeting the women activists, I remember Bongobondhu said that it was too early to think about women's issue." "In a myriad of meetings that the present law minister had with us, he promised a lot. But in reality nothing has been done," she adds. Now, three years past the new millennium, women activists are bearing the brunt of not being able to influence the government to bring a constitutional change to accommodate for direct election. Maleka questions the willingness of the government and the largest party in the opposition to see women included in the apex-body that governs the country. "The Nari Unnayan Parishad is there, I don't understand what its functions are. Since the people in power, be that men or women, are unwilling to push for women's cause, they should at least facilitate the persons who are working from outside." Maleka wants to see her fellow fighters gearing up for a change from outside the peripheries of parties and the parliament. She has a clear notion of what they would be able to do under the umbrella of a party, she believes, "To have a voice of their own, women must avoid being pawns at the hands of the politicians." She is in favour of keeping out of political outfits, so that women can decide for themselves. She believes this qualitative change is possible only if the Election Commission is empowered and the monopoly of the political outfits is curtailed, especially during campaigning.

A favourite line of reasoning politicians tend to offer for not granting direct elections is that the present socio-economic conditions, which they claim are not fit for women as far as participating in direct elections is concerned. Sigma Huda finds this to be a lame excuse. "If there could be nine seats reserved for women back in 1954, the election won by Jukta Front, why can't women participate in direct elections in 2004?" Sigma asks. Motia gives the example of union council elections to refute the argument. "Look at union council elections. If women, mostly half literate and poor, in the remote villages from across the country, can take part in direct elections, why can't they do the same in the parliament elections? Besides, there are thousands of very capable women, highly educated and politically conscious, who will make far better MPs than many of our male MPs," she says.

Most importantly, the new bill is not compatible with the true spirit of democracy that requires elected representatives, not selected ones. "Under the present arrangement there aren't any specific constitutions for these reserved seats. Moreover, since they are not elected they won't have the sense of responsibility the way an elected representative has. Again, since they will be selected by the party leadership they will represent, it is the particular leader/leaders (who has picked her) a woman MP will be answerable to, not to her electorate which she simply doesn't have," Motia argues.

The way the major political parties have responded to the demands of women organisations one thing is clear the political parties are never going to grant women’s demand taking pity on the women; women will have to realise their demand on their own. It might be by creation of Caucus as practised in some countries including the USA, suggests Sigma Huda. But at the same time, Sigma points out, women should concentrate on preparing their constituencies from where they will fight the elections.

The phenomenon of under representation is a global one. At present, in Bangladesh, it all boils down to the number 45. The 14th amendment simply serves to measure women's power in terms of numbers and it is a placebo solution to a real problem. What is worse is that it pretends to put women representatives in the parliament, when in reality the women are not only selected but also severed from their constituencies. This is marked shift from the process that may one day see women contesting their male counterparts. According to the 14th amendment, women MPs do not represent constituencies, as such they lose the chance to represent the people of their own respective constituencies.

Women activists who were pressing for direct election feared from the start that the government simply lacked sincerity. They were afraid that selected women MPs would merely be an ornamental addition to an otherwise male-dominated parliament. That reality along with the derogatory epithet -- "ornaments" remains unchanged.

While the women activists are showing resolve in looking for alternatives, the politicians have as usual failed to point out their own failures. The chasm between their words and the deeds have not only widened in the last couple of decades, politics itself has become one big black hole where everything from ideologies to peoples' dream and aspirations are vanishing into.

Fighting the Placebo Effect

Maleka Begum, a prominent woman activist and researcher gives her reaction to the 14th amendment and tells the Star Weekend Magazine how in this adverse environment, she sees the future of the struggle for women's political empowerment.

SWM: What is your reaction to the 14th amendment that puts the number of representatives at 45 and makes the distribution proportionate?

Maleka Begum (MB): The interesting aspect of it is that we were constantly being told that to make provision for 'direct election' in the reserved seats is difficult as it requires an amendment to the constitution, but the amendment is made at last, though for entirely different reasons. Now, the selected MPs even lose their constituencies. I don't know how they will represent the people without constituencies. And the law minister said that the issue of elections could be looked after later, for now, a provision has been made to let parties have representatives in proportion to the percentage of seats they get. We have been categorically saying that the number is not the issue, to bring about a qualitative change is. For that you have to go for direct elections. Those who brag about numbers are the ones who are simply side-stepping the issue of having women in the parliament who will be able to effect a change in the political culture by making decisions independent of party affiliation. Mere increase in number will not have that affect; it is a government ploy to appease the donors, to show that women are well represented in the parliament of this country. By overlooking the rights of women who comprise 50% of the electorate the government has simply taken an undemocratic step.

SWM: What, in your opinion, has been the reason for consecutive governments to avoid the issue of direct elections?

MB: It is clear that no one was sincere about it. The erstwhile law minister Abdul Matin Khosru used to tell us that, had the AL had the two-thirds majority they would have amended the constitution to facilitate direct election. The AL could at least have brought the bill up, even if they did not have the capacity to pass it. This they did not do. It was the election commitment of the BNP. The AL too had committed the same. I blame the BNP most, as it has the two-thirds majority in the current parliament, still it doesn't bother to keep its election promise. Parliament is the place where laws are made; women must take part in this process. We want women to decide for themselves, for the society and even for the country. They ought to be in places where they would be able to influence their country's fate.

We want the resolutions of Beijing Plus 5 to be implemented. We want equal status as citizens and voters. We want to stop the violence and discrimination against women. We want to raise voices in the parliament to amend the laws against women and to get equal share in the state budget.

SWM: Will you shed some light on Beijing Plus 5?

MB: In the 1995 Beijing conference -- or the Fourth World Women Conference -- it was decided that every country would have to ensure 33 per cent women participation in every aspect of life -- in the administration and in the establishment, in the educational and other institutions, parliament, high court and supreme court. Women are being deprived of their rights throughout the world. It is pandemic. In the French revolution women's participation was huge, yet in the legislature, the very issue of their participation was something of a joke for many. Now many countries have passed laws regarding the election of women representatives, which make it mandatory for the political parties to field at least 33% women candidates. Beijing Plus 5 was an important step in history. Khaleda Zia, as the head of her government, had signed the Beijing treaty in 1995. But we don't see much being done along that line. I think it is the huge international fund that comes our way that make many of us outwardly inclined to the ideas of women's empowerment. But as usual, words of mouth seldom translate into action. Had the AL and the BNP sincerely believed in the Beijing treaty they would have done something for women. Or, why don't they look back and review the glorious contribution of women like Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, Shamsun Nahar Mahmud, Sufia Kamal, Daulutun Nessa in this region in last 100 years. Even the contribution of women in the liberation war is still largely unrecognised. It is the political parties which are conservative in outlook not the women.

SWM: The present law minister Moudud Ahmed says that all the talks regarding 'direct election' are simply wishful thinking, how do you plan to fight this male mindset?

MB: No one at the helm can see women as the decision maker. Not even the two women leaders of the two major political parties. They may have launched their careers as heirs, one to her father's and the other to her husband's, but now they have a rightful place of their own in our national politics, still, did they ever do anything to change the status quo? All the social impediments are still there. Women still are more or less detained at their homes, their lives are still controlled by their male counterpart. It is the male guardian of the house who decides when the women members of the family would leave home, when they must return. With respect to education, job opportunities, women are still far behind. At this juncture, how can one expect her path to be paved by others? Yet at this stage they need the support of the state in implementing good laws, to amend the bad ones. We want state support as we want opportunities for a vast majority of the women. As for our struggle, I believe that in the last ten years we brought about a qualitative change to the women's movement. Hasna Moudud and Sigma Huda are now aligning with us in the issue of direct elections, though their husbands are against this demand. I think we have progressed in many respects. Right before the Union Parishad Election, many had the notion that 13,000 women candidates could be difficult to find throughout the country to run for elections. When in reality near about 40,000 candidates contested the polls, it certainly did away with a lot of misgivings about the willingness of the women to see themselves as decision makers.

SWM: Now that BNP and its partners have sealed women's fate for the next ten years, how do you plan to take the issue of women empowerment forward?

MB: I think, now we have a clear reason to get united and fight for this issue. We must take steps to file a case of public litigation. Farida Akhtar of Shommilito Nari Shomaj said that they would take legal action against the government. Because, the government can't misuse women's power through arrangements that have no bearing on the real issue. There is this brash comment from the patriarchal bastions, "Let women contest for 300 seats that are there". We want to contest men, but there is this culture of fraudulence and lies, if a woman fights against men she will have to be at par with the men resorting to all this. She would have to spend more than three lakh taka flouting the law. Violence during campaigning is the other factor that she would have to face. If women contest only against women, the competition will not take that sinister turn. Women can only contest real politicians, be that male or female. How can women compete with businessmen-turned-politicians? First you change the political culture, then you ask women to compete with their male counterparts. There are women candidates who have the courage as well as competence. So, now in retrospect, I personally feel that we have wasted more than thirty years lobbying with parties in government for special law, special arrangements. It did not accrue anything. Had we started to organise ourselves from the start to compete in 300 seats, we would have made progress. Now, I think, if we can build a platform that would provide our own women candidates with logistic and financial support, there is a fair chance of having many qualified MPs from our fold in the coming elections. We will boycott the women candidates who, after all the indifference from the political parties, would run to them begging for nominations. This is not an impractical proposition; it happened in the Soviet Union after the fall of communism, it can happen here.


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