Women and local government
In an article published in this newspaper on April 18, Rehana Begum Ranu proposed several recommendations to bring meaningful reforms in the local government system in Bangladesh. These recommendations are very relevant and demand closer examination. I will address just one of these recommendations which deals with women's participation in the local government.
Among all the tiers of local government in Bangladesh, the union parishad has the longest history in Bangladesh. However, it was not until the mid-1990s that women's participation was institutionalised at the union level. The Local Government (Union Parishad) (Second Amendment) Act 1997 provided for the direct election of three women in reserved seats. The act replaced a system where women were nominated members of union parishad. In the reformed structure, the three women members elected in reserved seats each represented three wards, therefore ensuring full representation of elected women in the nine wards of the union parishad. In addition to the reserved seats, women can also contest in the nine general seats.
In the union parishad elections held in 1997, nearly 14,000 women were directly elected as the members of the parishad for the first time in country's history. This was a watershed event for social and political empowerment of women in the country.
The main mechanism through which union parishads operate is standing committees, which undertake and execute the different functions in the union. There are thirteen such committees in all. Elected women members are to head one-third of the standing committees and are further mandated to head the committee on woman and children's welfare, culture, and sports.
While the direct election of women members in the union parishad is a significant development, the post-election experience of these women has not been entirely encouraging. In many cases, the women elected in reserved seats found themselves in a disadvantageous position. Male members tend to dominate the proceedings of committee meetings and decisions are made without active involvement of the women. Participation of women in routine local government affairs has been limited. For example, one study found that only 37% of the women members were given membership in special committees of the parishad which were responsible for food-for-work, vulnerable group feeding, roads and bridges, family planning and social welfare.
Many of the women members lack knowledge and information about procedures and functions of union parishad. Some of them do not have any prior involvement in social welfare activities or other experiences in the public arena. It is a common knowledge that many of the women representatives are relatives of men who are local power brokers.
Another critical issue is that of constituency, i.e. the lack of clear ward representation of women. Since each of the wards is also a constituency of another ward member, who is typically a man, each of the three women in union parishad usually has three male counterparts. This creates a situation where male members do not recognise the women as legitimate representatives of the parishad. At the same time, a women member has a rather large constituency of three wards of the union. This means that they will potentially face more demands which may be beyond their capacity or power to fulfill.
The recommendation proposed by Rehana Begum Ranu will address the problem of constituency. According to the recommendation, each ward will have the provision of directly electing a women member, alongside a male counterpart. Thus, there will be greater gender balance at each ward. At the same time, each woman will have to manage just one ward, instead of three wards in the present system.
Increasing the number of women representatives is one way to solve the problem. However, we need to ask -- when the existing women members are marginalised in terms of participation, will integrating more women in the union parishad ensure that they have more say in the decision-making process? The challenges faced by the women elected have to be understood in the context of the overall situation of women in the country. Participation of women in the political process in rural Bangladesh has traditionally been limited. This gender imbalance needs to be corrected incrementally. Throwing a group of women in the hot seat of union parishads may create more tension between men and women members and undermine the empowerment of the those women.
I would like to offer a slightly different policy agenda. This agenda involves ensuring the participation of different segments or constituents of the rural society in the local government structure. Examples of such constituencies include local NGO members and rural business entrepreneurs. One of the main problems of local government in Bangladesh is that the cycle of power is limited to a few who tend of dominate the local government. Incorporating different groups of population in the local government will help to rectify the imbalance.
Most of the NGO members tend to be women and poor. In fact, several NGOs mobilised groups of poor women to participate in the union parishad elections in 1997 and 2003. A significant number of women belonging to different NGOs participated in these elections and a sizable number of them won. Incorporating marginalised groups like poor and women in the political process will challenge the traditional power structure in rural areas.
Similarly, it is also important to include the local business persons in the decision-making process. The role of entrepreneurs is crucial in the development of local businesses and creation of jobs. These are just two examples.
Inclusion of other groups can be based on occupation or ethnicity. The presence of these disparate groups will ensure the representation of the broader society and create a mechanism of check and balance in the local government. How this scheme can be institutionalised at the policy level is an obvious question. Nevertheless, it is imperative that reforms are based on meaningful debates and considerations. The success of local government system is critical not just for the political empowerment of women but also for the development of the nation in general.
Ahmed Tareq Rashid writes from McMaster University, Canada.