Expectations from the new female reserved members of parliament
Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed of DOT :
On Friday, Awami League picked 41 more women as its candidates for the election to the reserved seats of the 11th parliament, which will be held on 4 March next. The names declared include activist Aroma Dutta and actress Suborna Mustafa, for seats reserved for women in parliament. According to the proportional representation in parliament, Awami League will get women MPs from 43 reserved seats, Jatiya Party from 4 seats, BNP from one and others will get the remaining two seats. The deadline for the submission of nomination papers expires today i.e. on 11 February. The election commission on 3 February announced the election schedule for the 50 parliamentary reserved seats, which are exclusively for women (Source: Prothom Alo, 9 February 2019).
According to a report titled “Women’s Reserved Seats in Bangladesh: A Systemic Analysis of Meaningful Representation”, dated 12 July 2016, in Bangladesh, there is broad consensus that women’s political participation is necessary for both the democratic development of the country as well as women’s empowerment. The provisions of reserved seats for women were incorporated under the Original Constitution of Bangladesh 1972 for securing a minimum representation of women in Parliament and to ensure a wider participation by them in national politics. However, research shows that these reserved seat provisions do not actually help women to impact on the political process through parliament. These are not helping in increasing their effectiveness in parliament.
The Constitution (17th Amendment) Act 2018 provides for reserved seat for women in parliament again, which is against the spirit of the Constitution though not unconstitutional and it would cripple the growth of women’s political empowerment. The Original Constitution in 1972 also included this provision of reserved seats for women in parliament despite that it received criticisms from some constituent assembly members who thought that this provision amounts to a lack of faith in the principle of equal rights of men and women in every sphere of life, it rather makes the women dependent on the other section. Hence, experts opine that it should be reinstate in the Constitution in a manner that provides for direct election of reserved seat nominations.
The constitutionality of the reserved seat provisions in law have been challenged several times before the courts including in the following cases, namely; Farida Akhter And Others Vs Bangladesh And Others 11 (2006) MLR (AD) 233, Dr. Ahmed Hussain V Bangladesh 44 DLR (AD) 109. However, in both the cases the petitioners have failed to establish their claims before the courts.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which supports citizens’ right to participate in free and fair elections; produced a report titled, “Women’s Reserved Seats in Bangladesh: A Systemic Analysis of Meaningful Representation” for the U.S. Agency for International Development, identified that the current reserved seats systems may have contributed to tokenism of women representatives and further marginalization due to, among other factors, overlapping mandates and lack of constituencies for women elected through Temporary Special Measures (TSMs). Numerical representation is a stepping stone towards meaningful representation, which means that it does aim for ensuring women’s political empowerment. However, it may not suffice to ensure the true purpose of representation. Moreover, experts also have the concern that gender quotas are an insufficient, but a necessary concept to realise gender equality in society: despite the drawbacks, having a gender quota is definitely an improvement and brings women closer to true gender equality. The reserved seats in Parliament are not elected and are instead de facto selected. Hence, general seats MPs technically comprise the electorate, and the reserved seats have never actually gone to vote. Women who are put on the party lists for reserved seats do not contest in general elections and do not have citizen constituencies, to whom they are accountable. The process is also susceptible to corruption and other undue influence by politically connected family members. Women who have been party workers for a long time are often ignored, and women who have no record of accomplishment with a party, but do have kinship or other relationship ties with party leaders, may be placed at the top of the list. This type of favoritism is demoralizing for both potential candidates and the general public. This type of favoritism is demoralizing for both potential candidates and the general public. Civil society organization Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN) estimates that one-fourth of candidates for women’s reserved seats in 2014 were nominated based on nepotism.
At the end, it can be said that women’s meaningful representation in Bangladesh continues to lag behind that of men, due to deeply ingrained cultural, socio-economic, and religious reasons. In addition to these issues, which are present to varying degrees in almost every country in the world, there are unique challenges associated with the way the vast majority of women are elected into office in Bangladesh. The reserved seats systems require reform in order to address key issues that systematically undermine women’s effective political leadership.
We hope the newly picked candidates for the election to the reserved seats of the 11th parliament, which will be held on 4 March next will be able to overcome these weaknesses and will successfully ensure women’s effective political leadership in oor parliament.
Tasmiah Nuhiya Ahmed, Advocate, Bangladesh Supreme Court and Executive Editor, Daily Our Time.