The World Economic Forum's “Global Gender Gap Report 2018”, published before the last general election in the country, has surprised many as it placed Bangladesh in the 5th position among 149 countries in terms of closing the gender gap in the sub-index “political empowerment”. Bangladesh's overall ranking, based on four sub-indexes, is also very good. According to WEF, Bangladesh ranks the highest in gender equality among the countries in South Asia and ahead of all other countries in Asia except the Philippines, with 48th position. According to the report, Bangladesh has closed over 72 percent of its overall gender gap.
The “Global Gender Gap Index” examines the gap between men and women across four fundamental categories: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. Among these four sub-indexes, political empowerment is where the gender gap remains the widest across the world. Only 23 percent of the gap in political empowerment has been closed worldwide and no country has yet been able to fully close this gap. Thus it is good to learn that Bangladesh is one of the top achievers in this sub-index.
Among the several parameters based on which the Geneva-based organisation has evaluated the countries' performance were: How many seats in the parliament belong to women members; how many women are at the ministerial level; the number of years with a female head of state; etc. “Across the 149 countries assessed, there are just 17 that currently have women as heads of state while, on average, just 18 [percent] of ministers and 24 [percent] of parliamentarians globally are women.”
In Bangladesh, women have been the heads of the government for almost the last three decades. We have 50 reserved seats for women in the parliament which are allotted to the parties based on their proportional representation in parliament. In the newly-formed government, one minister, one state minister and one deputy minister are women, and the total number of women parliamentarians who have been directly elected is 22, including the prime minister.
While there is no denying the fact that Bangladesh has made some tangible progress in many areas with respect to women's political empowerment, there are some areas the government needs to seriously look into for reducing the remaining gap.
Holding direct elections in the reserved seats is of utmost importance when it comes to ensuring women's political empowerment. But the 17th amendment to the Constitution that was approved in the parliament with a provision to extend the tenure of the 50 reserved seats for women for 25 more years is contradictory to the ideals of women's political empowerment. Women's rights activists' demands to increase the number of reserved seats to 150 and hold direct elections to these seats have completely been ignored by successive governments. Although the Awami League in its election manifesto in 2008 promised to increase the number of reserved seats for women by one-third and hold direct elections in these seats, the promise was left unfulfilled. In their latest manifesto, they have not promised anything about the reserved seats.
According to the third amendment to the Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972, political parties have to keep at least 33 percent of all committee positions, including the central committees, for women. Have our political parties taken any initiatives so far to fulfil this obligation?
Furthermore, without addressing the issues such as violence against women, child marriage, discriminations in the job sector such as the wage gap, and other gender-based inequalities, closing the remaining gap in women's political empowerment won't be possible. So we need to take an inclusive approach rather than treating this as an isolated issue. Improving the socio-economic conditions of women will go a long way in empowering them politically, because this will make women more confident in voicing their needs and concerns—socially and politically.
Needless to say, fighting violence against women should be prioritised. When a woman is gang-raped by the members of the ruling party because of her voting for her candidate of choice, all our hopes about women's political empowerment are shattered.
Then there is the prevalence of child marriage which is forcing young girls to drop out from schools, making them vulnerable mentally and physically. The passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Act keeping a special provision that allows child marriages under special circumstances remains a barrier to women's empowerment.
Therefore, Bangladesh's good ranking in the gender parity index should encourage the government to take measures that will further strengthen women's position in politics and other sectors. In their election manifestos prior to the last general election, our major political parties failed to draw any action plan on women's empowerment, which was criticised by women's rights activists. We hope the newly-formed government will take the issue of women's political empowerment seriously and reform the laws where needed. Just as the government has declared zero-tolerance to corruption, it should also declare zero-tolerance to violence against women and commit to women's political empowerment. Needless to say, without women's political empowerment and their participation at the policy-making level, achieving gender parity will remain a far-fetched dream.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.