Women's participation in local government

Md Almas Ali

Women constitute about 49 per cent of population. Various indicators reveal that the status of women is much lower than that of men. The development objectives such as accelerated economic growth, poverty alleviation, family well being and employment creation cannot be achieved without the contribution and participation of women. There is the traditionalization; social system and institutions place them in unequal and disadvantaged positions. The constitution of Bangladesh has granted equal rights to men and women both in matters relating to the state and public life. The constitutional provisions (Article 9-10, 27-28, 37-39, 50 66 and 122) clearly outlived the steps to be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of national life.

The term "women's participation in the local government' is an important issue in current development discourses. What participation means? Momtaz Soysal defines participation as all forms of action by which citizens "take part" in the operation of administration. The taking part refers to any level from macro to micro region or it may be of any type e.g. advisory or in decision-making or in implementation etc., people can participate through public or private bodies or organisations.

Political participation may, therefore, be considered as one of the most powerful indicators of the status of women both in social and economic spheres of life.

The National Policy for Women's Development and the National Action Plan (NAP) for Women's Advancement: The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing in end-1995 to analyse the progress made in implementing the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies (NFLS) for the Advancement of Women to the year 2000. NFLS was drawn up in Nairobi in 1985. The Government of Bangladesh in 1997 also decided to adopt the "National Action Plan for Advancement of women (NAP) to implement the decisions made at the Beijing Conference whose salient major features are as follows: to achieve the equal status of women as participants, decision makers and beneficiaries in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres of life; and to empower women and men to work together as equal partners.

The emphasis of the Fifth Five Year Plan is on the reduction of gender disparity through integration of women in the mainstream of development. The thrust of the plan is on protection of women's rights and empowerment of women.

Background and Functioning of Local Government Institutions: The institution of local government in Bangladesh has a long history. In its present form, its origin can be traced to the demand for self-government in British India. Initially, local government was developed by the British to maintain law and order in the rural areas with the help of local elite backed by local police. The local elites were to be nominated in the local government institutions from among those who were trusted by the colonial authority and the village police, (the chawkidars) were to be paid by taxing the villagers (through the local government of the village punchayets in the 1870s and the Union and District Boards after 1885). More than one hundred and thirty years have passed since the creation of the act and local government at union level over the years has changed its name, area, function, power from time to time.

During the Pakistan period (1947-71), this dynamic trend of the growth of representative institutions was significantly lost particularly under the Martial Law administration of the Ayub Khan (1958-69). In 1959, Ayub introduced his particular variety of local government institution known as the "Basic Democracy" under which the local government representatives were known as "Basic Democrats". In 1969, during the period of anti-Ayub movement, the institution of basic democracy came under severe attack.

After independence of Bangladesh, it was expected that the above perversion of the development of local government institutions would be corrected.

Women in Politics (National and Local Level): Bangladesh is a unique case in terms of women leadership in politics both the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition are women. There were 30 seats reserved (now abolished) as the female quota in the national parliament. Under the Local Government Ordinance, 1976, a Union Parishad was divided into three wards. Each Union Parishad consisted of a chairman, nine members, taking three from each ward. For the first time in the history of local government institution of Bangladesh, under this Ordinance two women were nominated as members in the Parishad by the sub-divisional officer from amongst the women of the entire Union. Later on this number was increased to three in the Local Government (Union Parishad) Ordinance 1983 and each of them represented one ward and they were nominated by the Upazilla Parishad. The Union Parishad Bill, 1993 was passed in this regard. In other tiers of the local self-government namely Upazila Parishad (abolished in 1991-99 July), there were three nominated women members.

In Pourashava, which is a unit of the urban local government institutions, also the number of nominated women members were three. The government decision to broaden the base of women's participation has increased substantially the involvement of women in local politics.

After liberation the constitution of Bangladesh (1972) provided for local government units at each of these tiers of administration. It also endorsed special representation of women in local government. In the last 30 years six local government elections were held in Bangladesh (1973, 1977, 1983-1984, 1988-1989, 1992 and 1997). It may be mentioned that it was for the first time in the history of the land that statutory representation of women was provided in the local government at the lower tier, the union parished. In 1973 election only one woman from Rangpur was elected as the chairmen of Union Parishad among 4352 unions and was killed long before the completion of her term. In 1977 election four women were elected as chairmen of Union Parishads. In 1984 four women were elected among 4401 Union Parishads (one from Dhaka Division, two from Khulna Division and one from Rajshahi Division). Two more women were elected in by-election as chairmen. It is found that between 1973 and 1984, only eleven women out of over 4000 could be elected as chairpersons. In 1988, candidates for Chairman were 79, for members 863. Only one female chairman was elected. In 1992, 115 women contested for chairmanship and 1135 for membership. Only 20 members were elected.

In pursuance of the strategies outlined in the plan for building strong local government institutions as an integral part of democratic governance, the government set up the Local Government Commission in September 1996. The Commission submitted its report in May 1997 and recommended the formation of four-tier elected local government bodies at Village, Union, Upazila and District levels. The Government has already approved the recommendations.

According to the commission report it is supposed to be a direct election of women to one-third reserved seats in local bodies. It is to be noted that 12,828 female members were directly elected in Union Council election held in 1997, moreover, 20 Chairmen out of 4,198 and 110 members of Upazila Parishad (Local Government) were elected directly defying the fatwa of the fundamentalists. The initiative closely corresponded with the Beijing platform for action where political empowerment of women was one of the major conditions. More and more rural women will be able to participate in self-governance activities, especially for poverty alleviation and rural development as well as for promoting women's equality and empowerment.

In Upazila election in 1985, nine women were candidates for Upazila Chairman but none could win. There are to be 1380 nominated women members for the 460 Upazila Parishads. In the 79 Pourashavas, there are to be 237 nominated women members. In Dhaka and Chittagong Municipal Corporations, there are 10 and three nominated women Commissioners, respectively. Election to Zila Parishad has not been held since the creation of Bangladesh.

On the other hand the government amended the Pourashava Ordinance of 1997 in 1998 and four City Corporation Statutes in 1999, which provide for direct election of women members to their reserved seats in the Pourashava and City Corporations. Elections have already been held for the Pourashavas under the revised ordinance. Election of the Chittagong City Corporation has already been held; elections of the others City Corporation are planned.

Conclusion: Twenty-first century is ushering in an era of new hopes and aspirations for the women-folk, as the women of Bangladesh can now look forward with pride and hope for having some outstanding and significant occasions that have taken place in the last two decades for their all out development. We require both our hands to pray to our Creator. So, the active co-operation between men and women is a must for real development of a developing country like Bangladesh.

Md Almas Ali is Assistant Chief (North-West Region Development Cell), and Promotional Researcher, SSRC, Planning Commission, Ministry of Planning.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, November 27, 2001