Engaging on Gender in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh’s millions of voters will go to the polls by early 2014 to elect a new parliament, but many fear that there will be a critical choice missing from most of the ballots – that is the option to vote for a woman candidate. The inequality is so great that in the 2008 parliamentary elections, over 96 percent of candidates for 299 constituencies were men. The vast majority of constituencies lacked even a single women’s name on the ballot.

Despite a spattering of very high profile politicians — women lead both of the main parties and the speaker of parliament is female — women are underrepresented in official offices, parliament, and local government. Parties nominate few women for any non-reserved seats and despite high voter turnout among women and their active involvement as political party workers; women are scarce in political party decision-making and electoral institutions.

Seats are reserved for women politicians both in parliament (14%) and local government, but only the local reserved seats are directly elected by voters. Some critics have argued that the women in the parliamentary reserved seats hardly represent women at all, since the elected MPs that chose them are nearly 94% male. Some women parliamentarians have expressed that they would be better able to contribute if they had a constituency even though many continue to develop strategies to use their appointed seats as effectively as possible.

In this context, UN Women, the Embassy of Sweden, and UNDP hosted a BRIDGE Workshop to engage stakeholders on the issue in the run-up to the election as well as build capacity for longer-term reforms in the post election period.

The facilitation team used the new BRIDGE materials developed by UNDP for civil society advocates now part of the Gender and Elections module. The new approach builds on the key understandings from the recently updated module by integrating them with advocacy and lobbying for reforms.

The agenda covered political parties’ roles in gender equality, candidate nomination processes, gender quotas, and international standards. Participants particularly engaged with questions of representation over the issues of reserved seats. One of the highlights of the workshop was a set of case studies on the experiences of quotas in countries with similar electoral systems including France, Uganda, and India

Participants in the workshop included political party representatives, electoral officials, and members of civil society engaged in electoral processes and gender equality. Within this diverse group a consensus quickly developed that reserved seats for women need to be directly elected by the voters to give women representatives in parliament with greater legitimacy. The group also agreed that parties and civil society must prioritize the nomination of women for general constituencies, and that they must do this immediately to avoid a repetition of the dismal numbers from 2008.

In a final session, participants presented key findings and recommendations to a broader group of civil society leaders, higher officials, and the international community. Participants recommended that all actors pressure parties to increase the nomination of women in the next polls, to reform the political finance system, and to switch the current quota system to one with higher targets and direct election of women candidates. Both organizers and participant organizations committed to following up on these priorities immediately.

Md. Nuruzzaman Talukder, Sharmin Afrose, Mahmuda Afroz, and Skye Christensen facilitated the workshop. Congratulations to Nuruzzaman and Sharmin for acceding to Workshop Facilitation status.

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