In July this year, the 17th amendment to the Constitution was approved in parliament with a provision to extend the tenure of the 50 reserved seats for women for 25 more years. What's your view on this?
This is a very unfortunate development in our politics. We have been advocating for holding direct elections for the reserved seats for women for many years. Increasing the number of reserved seats and restructuring the constituencies are also among our demands. But to our astonishment, the draft bill was approved by the cabinet, on January 29, 2018, with a provision to extend the tenure of the 50 reserved seats for 25 more years. This was done without any discussion on the issue in parliament or any other platforms. And later, on July 8, the bill was passed in parliament. The manner in which this has been passed, without any regard for the legitimate demands for reforms in the bill, is really surprising.
This bill has come at a time when we are celebrating women's achievement in all spheres of society. There are many success stories: our women have scaled the Everest, our girls' cricket team have won international cricket matches and brought honour for the country, and for the first time in the country, a woman has been appointed to the rank of a major general. Women have been joining the most challenging professions such as journalism, law enforcement agencies, peace keeping forces, etc.—breaking the social taboos.
Against this backdrop, the passing of the 17th amendment to the Constitution came as a shock to us as this is contradictory to the ideals of women's political empowerment. It also contradicts the promises made by the government as well as the National Women Development Policy and the CEDAW convention. Instead of empowering women, this law will further weaken the process of women's political empowerment. Women in the reserved seats will become further marginalised as they will not have any specific roles and responsibilities. They won't be able to build up their own constituencies without participating in direct elections.
Although there is no legal barrier for women to participate in the national elections from the 300 general seats, given the patriarchal character of our political parties, it is quite difficult for women candidates to get nominations from their respective parties. Also, since getting nominations largely depend on money and muscle power, women candidates hardly have any chance.
Some of the women MPs have shared with us how badly they are treated while performing their official duties. Often, even a DC refuses to meet an MP from a reserved seat. Thus, it is clear that without being elected through a direct election, a woman MP cannot earn respect from others, let alone work for the people.
Can you please elaborate further on the recommendations made by Bangladesh Mahila Parishad?
At present, there are 50 reserved seats for women in parliament which are allotted to the parties based on their proportional representation in parliament. We have proposed that reserved seats should be increased by one-third (of the general seats), taking the total number of seats to 450. In other words, 150 seats should be reserved for women, who will have to contest in direct elections. We have also suggested restructuring of the existing constituencies. Each constituency for a reserved seat should be created by combining two contiguous constituencies from the general seats. We had prepared a draft bill regarding this and submitted it to the government, but it was overlooked.
In 2008, the Awami League in its election manifesto promised that if voted to power, the reserved seats for women would be increased by one-third and direct elections would be held in these seats. Then in 2009, the prime minister said that the reserved seats for women would be increased from 45 (there were 45 seats then) to 100 and they would be elected through direct elections. The same was also mentioned in the National Women Development Policy 2011.
Introducing direct elections in the reserved seats of the local government has been touted as a big achievement for the government. How would you evaluate the current situation?
Of course, it was a big achievement. But the Local Government Act itself is problematic. The power of local government has been squeezed and there is no autonomy. Whereas the development of a specific area should be done by the local government, in reality the local government bodies have no power to do so. And when it comes to the women members of the local government institutions, many of them are not even aware of their roles and responsibilities. Women members do not get the same facilities as their male counterparts do. They are not getting proper honorarium and transport facilities. They are given fewer responsibilities than their male counterparts. We have intensively worked at the grassroots level in 10/12 districts. I think what they need is education, training and resources. Of course, there are many women leaders who are quite aware of their roles and responsibilities, especially women politicians in the big cities. But is there an enabling environment for the women to work? Think about the case of Selina Hayat Ivy, the mayor of Narayanganj. Although she won the mayoral election, our patriarchal political system has crippled her political power.
However, there was a time when women members of the local government were not even given letters prior to the meetings. There were instances where meetings were called at night so women members could not attend those. I must admit that the situation has improved a lot from that.
How far do you think our major political parties have progressed in terms of ensuring gender equality in their party structures?
The third amendment to the Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972 requires political parties to keep at least 33 percent of all committee positions for women including the central committee. In reality, no major political parties could fulfil this obligation. Although our two big political parties always say that they are open to recruit more women members to their parties, what women members of these parties tell us is that they face discrimination. As the basic characteristics of our politics are still patriarchal in nature, the issue of gender equality is not addressed in party meetings and the women members in these parties are largely excluded from the real decision-making processes.
Moreover, it has to be understood that unless we can ensure a safe and harassment-free environment for women, their political empowerment would remain only a dream. But do any of our political parties address the issue of violence against women? Did they address the issue of sexual harassment of women in public transport? Do they not understand that this is a disgrace to the nation? Have you ever heard anything about the issue of violence against women being discussed in parliament? Rape and all forms of violence are tools to subjugate and subordinate women. Why then do the political parties that talk about women's empowerment and equal rights do not address these issues in real life? It is evident from this that our political leaders, irrespective of the party they belong to, still do not give gender issue a priority.