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14 February, 2019 11:18:59 AM

Women’s participation in local level election

Though women make up half of the world population, their representation in the local governments of developing countries is much lower compared to the advanced democracies
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed
Women’s participation in local level election

Local government remained almost an exclusive domain of men during the British period. The Bengal Local Self Government Act of 1885 provided the right to vote only for men. After that, the Bengal village Self-government Act, 1919 brought significant changes to the structure of local bodies. But women did not have voting right under that Act. In 1976, for the first time, the Local Government Ordinance reserved two seats for women in each Union Parishad. In 1983, changes were brought to the structure of Union Parishad by promulgating the Local Government Ordinance (Union Parishad). According to this law, each Union Parishad was divided into nine wards and UP consisted of a chairman and 12 members, including three nominated members for reserved seats.
Bangladesh is divided into eight administrative divisions within which are districts and Thanas or sub-districts. Local government is divided into 225 urban based municipalities or Pourashava and 4,451 rural micro areas known as unions and about 80,000 grams or villages. Elections are held for urban local government with councillors/commissioners elected on a ward basis while mayors and chairmen are elected at-large. While elections are held every five years, at present, due to political reasons, many Purashavas, municipalities and city corporations’ terms are over and elections have not been held. Local authorities are strictly controlled by central government and totally dependent on government funding. One third of municipal and union seats are reserved for women and in the last elections in 1997 for union seats nearly 48,000 women stood for seats. Currently Bangladesh has a woman prime minister and a woman leader of the opposition. However, their high position in politics is not a reflection of women’s political position overall in this country as both women come from political families and their election has not led to a great number of other women being elected. There are 350 seats in the national parliament and 50 of these are reserved for women who are directly elected.

In recent times there is a rising interest in increasing the participation of women in politics at both national and local levels. The reason for this interest is that their participation in different socio-economic and political processes can lead to a significant development of the country. Though women make up half of the world population, their representation in the local governments of developing countries is much lower compared to the advanced democracies. In South Asia, women's participation in the political process has not been insignificant so far. Women are indentified through their relationships with the dominant males- as mothers, wives sister and daughters.

While women are underrepresented in positions of political power worldwide they have clearly had more success at gaining access to local level decision-making positions than to those at central government level. The reason for this has been attributed largely to the everyday realities of women’s lives. Participation in local government is easier for women to fit into their lives, along with family, household responsibilities and employment. Local government is also seen as more accessible as there are more positions available and less competition for places than in local and central parliament. Local government can also be less intimidating as it is an extension of the great deal of involvement that women already have within their communities. As a result of more women being elected to local government councils, the environment has become more open to them being there, to women’s issues being on the agenda and to equal employment opportunities for staff. Much of this acceptance has been aided in the last two decades by a very active women’s movement, campaigns developed to increase the numbers and, in some instances, by the statutory requirement for quotas of women. In Bangladesh women are encouraged to participate by women’s wings within political parties, NGOs, women’s groups and civil society organizations, most of which run workshops and seminars which highlight the initiatives needed to improve the position of women. One NGO, Nijera Kori, organized women and encouraged them to participate in local elections. Local government has also encouraged women’s participation through different programmers. In particular, the National Institute for Local Government conducts training programmers for women commissioners. These programmers focus on empowerment of women, gender and development and women’s rights. Barriers to Participation Demographic data from countries in the South Asia sub-region shows the inequitable position women are in when compared to men and this lack of real equality creates major barriers to women’s participation in public life. In most cases women’s lives are constrained by obstacles such as culture and tradition (the view that men are superior to women), religion, political turmoil, violence, money and lack of opportunities. Demographic statistics show low literacy rates, poor health rates and poverty.

Women candidates of Bangladesh face some challenges while participating in election. In Bangladesh, most of the religious values wanted to restrict women's rights and equality and intentionally deny women's political participation. Some people claims purdha restriction was an obstacle for campaigning in Union Parishad election in rural areas women are not used to being active and participating in the public sphere. Many villagers, both men and women assume that, it is difficult to accept a woman as candidate in election as this is not the traditional role of a woman. Non-cooperation from local elite is considered as a constraint for woman candidates. People opine that because of the reservation of seats, local elite considers woman candidates as emerging leaders in rural power structure in a sense a challenge to the local elite. Besides, some claims that people's attitude towards women was not always encouraging of their leadership. Accordingly, they are not always able to motivate their electorate, who could support them in strengthening their position. Therefore, it can be said that patriarchal outlook is a constraint for women to participate in election at local level. Election campaign requires social interactions and relationships with the people, which seem to be difficult and challenging for women. It is revealed that women candidates in local level elections face various challenges and problems. Moreover, in Bangladesh women candidates who participate in elections carried the burden of domenstic duties. It is found that an overwhelming proportion of candidates are supposed to collect money from different sources to meet the electoral expenditure. Besides this, majority of women candidates have no self-income and they are economically dependent on their families. So they get financial support from various sources to meet their electoral expenses. It is also found similarities between the issues raised by the candidate. During participation in election, women candidates face some common challenges like lack of self-confidence and awareness, lack of previous election experience, patriarchal outlook, restrictions on free movement, campaigning at night, and inadequacy of finance. In Bangladesh, major challenges are large constituency, religious values and socio-cultural constraints.          

The role of women in leadership positions has been the focus of much 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, not only to ensure that women’s interests are represented but also because of growing evidence that women’s involvement improves the way in which leadership and decision-making is practiced. Within the Asia and Pacific region the initiatives to encourage women’s political participation have, until now, 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, 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 in which real differences can be made.

The writer is a contributor to The Independent



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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