Women in local government
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. In 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 in 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 a social system where the socialisation process plays an influential role in pushing them into an inferior and subordinate position in society. This socialisation process starts almost with the birth of a child. Through different treatment in their everyday lives, a sex identity is acquired. This socialisation process associates girls with the home and boys with a wider environment. This results in an unfavourable 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.
Unequal access to education and training to develop their skills, and also to employment, will make women more economically dependent on men. All these factors reinforce each other to keep women's political participation low, which makes them unable to keep control over the community's resources.
McCormark, in Bambewala (1983), mentions three factors that are responsible for women's non-participation in politics. Political participation may include activities such as picketing and convincing and influencing public authorities, to which women in Bangladesh are generally not habituated. That is why they keep themselves far from politics.
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 worse than it is 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, and 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 government plays an influential role in grassroot level development through responding to local needs. Local government means an intra-sovereign governmental unit dealing mainly with local affairs, administered by local authorities and subordinate to the state government (Jahan, 1997:92). According to 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 1870, and was called "Chowkidary Panchayet." It consisted of five persons, all of whom were nominated by the district magistrate. The only function of the "Chowkidary Panchayet" was to maintain law and order in the villages, and maintenance tax was imposed on villagers for running it.
The Local Government (Union Porishad) Second Amendment Act 1997 of Bangladesh can be seen as a milestone 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. It gave the structural framework for women's participation in political decision-making and provided an opportunity to bring women to the centre of local development and develop new grassroots level leadership.
But the number of women in elective positions of chairperson and member in the Union Parishads was abysmally low even after 3 seats were reserved for women candidates, because women elected from reserved seats do not get institutional support and are often not included in mainstream activities, and their responsibilities are sometimes not stated clearly. Even those who are elected as chairperson or general member are often ignored during decision-making only because they are women.
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 the development process and integrating them equally in 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.
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 the 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 the condition of grassroot level women of the country.
Though Amendment 1997 provided direct elections to reserved seats for women in local level elections, there are some serious lacunas in gender balancing both in terms of governance policy and in reform agenda. The 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.
The culture of local government needs to be changed to ensure that women are treated fairly and equally and to make sure that discrimination against women is not acceptable. At the same time, gender awareness programmes for men and women need to be developed so that they can have a more effective role in the development process of the country.
Aisha Siddika is a Gender specialist and executive at Grameen Veolia Water Ltd.
M. Mizanur Rahman is an assistant Director at D.Net and a Master of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka.