IFES Bangladesh, with support from the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), conducted a Disability Rights and Elections BRIDGE training in Dhaka on December 20-21, 2016. The 24 participants consisted of representatives from the Ministry of Social Welfare, the Election Commission of Bangladesh (ECB), disabled people’s organizations, disability rights advocacy groups, and civil society organizations working on elections and democratic governance. Many of the participants were persons with disabilities, which allowed for a nuanced discussion about the rights and participation of persons with disabilities as voters, supporters, candidates, and election officials.
Many of the organizations that participated in the BRIDGE training had also attended the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation, convened by IFES in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 1-3, 2015. During the conference, IFES helped facilitate the development of a set of nine recommendations from dialogue participants that were presented during the Forum of the Election Management Bodies of South Asia (FEMBOSA) conference. Subsequently, the FEMBOSA Election Commissioners unanimously adopted all nine recommendations as part of their Colombo Resolution of the 6th Meeting of FEMBOSA, and committed to developing common minimum standards for disability inclusive elections. On the last day of the conference, IFES piloted the new BRIDGE Disability Rights and Elections module.
After the regional conference, IFES stayed in contact with the Bangladesh participants and coordinated with them and other disability groups to organize the BRIDGE training. The goal of the training was to increase technical understanding of disability rights in the electoral process, and to provide an opportunity for governmental and non-governmental stakeholders working on disability inclusion and elections to come together and create momentum for reform.
Recognizing the importance of including counterparts from state institutions and following up on the ECB’s commitment from Colombo to safeguard the electoral rights of persons with disabilities, IFES approached the ECB to participate in the workshop. The newly appointed ECB Secretary agreed to assign one of his staff members to co-facilitate the training, and gave permission for two other staff members to attend the training despite being in the middle of a busy electoral period, demonstrating his commitment to the disability rights.
On the first day, the training focused on laying the foundation for the political rights of persons with disabilities, with an overview of international standards and Bangladesh’s laws. The workshop went on to explore barriers for persons with disabilities in the electoral cycle, discuss “reasonable accommodation” in electoral processes, and analyze the accessibility of voter registration.
On the second day, participants learned about the role of the election commission in ensuring equal access in voting. Strategies for candidates running for office on a disability rights platform were envisioned through a role playing exercise, complemented with international examples of elected persons with disabilities. The workshop ended with participants designing voter education interventions with a focus on equal access to electoral processes.
The facilitation team consisted of Silja Paasilinna (IFES), Kazi Islam (Aga Khan Development Foundation), Saif Ahmed (The Hunger Project), and Fahmida Sultana (Election Commission of Bangladesh). The facilitation team worked closely together for two weeks prior to the training to ensure sufficient understanding of disability issues and sensitivity regarding conducting a training with a large number of participants with various types of disabilities.
The training participants were enthusiastic and engaged, and at the conclusion of the training they expressed their desire to work collectively to advance the political rights of persons with disabilities. To capitalize on the momentum generated at the BRIDGE workshop, IFES will invite the most active and influential participants to the advocacy training and planning workshop scheduled for January 2017.