Increasing women’s representation in parliament

Published: 00:05, May 20,2018 | Updated: 23:10, May 19,2018


Md Osman Ali writes on electoral, socio-economic and political challenges and possible action to address the challenges

Parliament generally refers to a legislature within a Westminster-style of parliamentary system which has influenced the development of representative assemblies in many countries. A parliamentary system is a system of democratic governance of a state in which the executive branch derives its democratic legitimacy and is held accountable to the parliament. The executive and legislative branches are thus interconnected system. The term ‘parliament’ adopts many widely different names: Jatiya Sangsad in Bangladesh, Congress in the United States, Duma in Russia, Diet in Japan, National People’s Congress in China, the Knesset in Israel and Sansad in India.
Parliaments represent and respond to everyday reality of societies. By doing so, parliaments are constantly evolving. In the present century, one important change that has happened to democracy around the world is women’s participation as members of parliament.

Women’s representation
WOMEN around the world at every socio-political level find themselves underrepresented in parliament. As of January 2018, women held 23.4 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide. The average of women representation in parliament in America is 28.4 per cent; in Europe OSCE member countries, excluding Nordic countries, it is 27.1 per cent and in Asia is 18.6 per cent. Women in Nordic countries where women-friendly politics exists win greater representation, with 41.1 per cent, in the parliament. Women enjoy a parliamentary majority, with 61.3 per cent, in Rwanda. Bangladesh stands eighth in Asia with women representing 20 per cent of seats in the parliament.

Existing electoral systems
The Bangladesh parliament has 350 seats, including 50 women’s reserved seats, increased through constitutional amendments from 15 in 1973. The reserved seat is only 14.3 per cent which is very low compared with the 50-50 concept as introduced in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Senegal and South Africa. There is recommendation in the parliament and the government’s policy brief in 2013 for gender equality in the Bangladesh parliament to increase the number of women in reserved seat to 64 — one for each administrative district. Appropriate action has not yet been taken in this regard.
The number of women directly elected has been painfully low, ie from 0.7 per cent in 1979 in the second parliament to a maximum of 6.3 per cent in 2014 in the tenth parliament. The ninth and the tenth parliament registered a progress from 4.8 per cent in 1973 in the first parliament to 18.55 per cent and 20 per cent women in reserved plus general seats respectively. This is less than 30 per cent recognised as the critical mass for change in the parliament.
Bangladesh has first-past-the-post electoral system for general seats in the parliament and a single transferable vote system for women’s reserved seats based on the number of seats secured by a political party. Under the first-past-the-post system, voting takes place in single-member constituency. A candidate wining with the majority votes in each constituency becomes parliamentarian. As it allows the dominance of major parties in the choice of candidates, it can lead to the exclusion of women candidature from general seat because of the ‘most acceptable syndrome’. The member directly elected to 300 constituencies select 50 women in reserved seats according to their number in political parties in the parliament. The reserved seats in the parliament are not voted on because party leaders nominate only as many candidates as there are available seats for each party.
Woman in reserved quota are viewed as short of ‘genuine’ representative in the parliament, because they are not treated as legitimate political actors. The quota is considered to be ‘woman-unfriendly’ for qualitative representation. There is a demand for women activists for women’s direct election to reserved seat but government does not have a consensus on the issue.
The principle of proportional representation is majority rule with representation for the electoral minority in proportion to the way people vote. That is, 60 per cent of the vote gets you 60 per cent of the seats and 20 per cent of the vote gets you 20 per cent of the seats. Under the proportional representation system, there is a potential solution to the under-representation of women. The scope for capable women candidates being nominated increases. But there is some risk in the system that may lead to even greater concentration of power in party leaders who may select candidates on grounds of loyalty to them rather than their merit.
Hence, only the proportional representation system may not suit all countries. It may not be as effective as it is in developed countries because to meet a standard developed in one country may fail in another. New Zealand, Italy, and Germany are among a growing number of democracies that use a system with a mix of the first-past-the-post, ie winner-take-all districts, and the proportional representation system. Women representation in parliament, under the first-past-the-post system, is 27.7 per cent in Afghanistan and 20.6 per cent in Pakistan where there is reserved quota. Women have comparatively a less representation, under the first-past-the-post system, in Bhutan (8.5 per cent), India (12.0 per cent) and the Maldives (5.9 per cent) where there is no reserved quota.
On the contrary, there is lowest women representation, with 5.8 per cent, in the parliament of Sri Lanka under only the proportional representation system. Thus only one electoral system, either the first-past-the-post or the proportional representation, does not seem to increase women’s representation whereas Nepal is one of the examples in South Asian where a mix of both the systems is introduced and it has increased women representation in the parliament to 29.6 per cent. A proportional representation system, in combination with a closed-list system, is more conducive to the election of women representation.

Barriers in electoral systems
THE system for women’s reserved seat is to be devised for direct election, as an appropriate strategy, to reduce the existing gender inequality in women’s qualitative and quantitative representation in the parliament. The stakeholders, academics, women activists, researchers, civil society actors recommend alternatives such as direct or indirect mode of election or direct election on rotation or proportional representation, for the selection of women representatives. The verdict of the Appellate Division in 16th amendment to the constitution called the election of 50 women in the reserved seats as ‘incompatible’ with the spirit of the preamble of the constitution as well as its Article 7(1) but expects to get women MPs elected to the parliament through direct election to ensure women’s representation in the parliament.
Out of the 300 constituencies, there will be, at first term of election, 100 earmarked constituencies for women where only women will directly contest in the election. The Election Commission in consultation with the women and children affairs ministry will select 100 constituencies where there are less access for women to basic needs, prevalence of gender-based violence, women insecurity, sexual harassment, child marriage, etc. On the contrary selection may be done by lottery or any other method. Election to the remaining 200 seats will remain open to contest for both men and women candidate.
The rotating mechanism of election may continue unless women have achieved their cultural and societal acceptance on the political landscape. It is expected that this will allow them to develop their capability to increase their intensive public connection and public respect in an earmarked area in a district and, thereby, develop their capability to compete general election with male counterpart in the future.
The proportional representation system may be piloted to bring about gender equality in some of 200 constituencies where there is low level of women advancement. In nominating candidate for election in the proportional representation system, the best known option is the ‘zipper system’ where two male followed by one female candidate would be listed on the ballot. Then a chance of women’s opportunity to contest at least 33 per cent of seats will be created to come out of the existing disproportionate representation in the first-past-the-post system. A mix of both the systems may be adopted.
A woman election commissioner appointed for the first time can establish a gender-sensitive electoral process that responds to the needs and interests of women as well as men in its policies and operations. However, extensive deliberation is needed to devise specific actions which can address the practical political and operational problems inherent in reforms. More research and discussion are needed on the pros and cons of different electoral systems in order to assess their relevance in the context of Bangladesh.

Unhealthy election culture
THE election culture in Bangladesh is characterised by political activities organised according male norms which often stop women from acquiring power through election. There are innumerable instances of women politicians (and parliamentarians) being manhandled during election campaigns and other visits to their constituencies. The election environment like ‘winners and losers’, competition and confrontation, is often alien to women and does not encourage them to participate in election. There are incidents of clashes between rival political factions and influence of muscle and money in the criminalisation of electoral practices which create constraints in developing women’s confidence to run for the parliamentary election.
The rule of law, civil and political rights should not be compromised so that level-playing field for credible elections can be ensured to create congenial environment for citizens, especially eligible women, to participate in elections. The law enforcement agencies, non-governmental organisations, civil society, mass media, and women activists should cooperate with another to adopt legal and practical measures to prevent acts of violence against women candidate and to bring about democratic values and norms towards holding free and fair elections in creating women-friendly election environment

Cultural challenges
CULTURAL attitude dominated by patriarchy runs as restrictions on woman’s mobility in Bangladesh. The cultural value is reluctant to accept the legitimacy of women’s political participation. Cultural stereotypes see that it is only a secondary obligation for women to get involved in social and political institutions, women are not capable of assuming leadership position, and women’s involvement in public sphere should be an extension to their roles in family sphere. Such gender stereotypes rooted in social norms stop women from getting involved in political activities outside homes. Mainstream media are often prone to cultivating a negative and stereotypical portrayal of women politicians, with a tendency to put them down and not focus on their political achievements.
The strategy to achieve women’s political rights is to implement major fundamental tenets of CEDAW such as an increase in women’s participation in civil, economic, social, cultural and in governance and administration as well as bringing about changes in age-old mentality within patriarchal structure.
There should be an orientation for women to inculcate new cultural norms about the legality of women’s political participation. This can be done by politically experienced women to train new generations in political leadership. Thus, contemporary cultural attitude will have to be developed to promote women’s mobility and political participation. Hence, an effective advocacy to highlight constitutional provisions of women’s rights is necessary for an appropriate structural and social environment to ensure gender equality and to sustain it in socio economic and political arenas.

Economic challenges
In Bangladesh, women need to spend a lot of fund for nomination and election campaigns which are the greatest challenges for women candidates. Economic dependence and rampant nomination business, selling nominations against money limit women’s prospect of getting nomination and conducting election campaign.
Women face specific challenges in three phases of a political campaign — deciding to run, winning a party nomination and conducting an electoral campaign. In deciding to run for election, they would frequently hesitate over investing family resources and asking for credit. To win a nomination, women have to build recognition among constituencies, which requires a significant investment of time and money. Women who succeed in winning a nomination often feel disadvantage to conduct their electoral campaign. In comparison with men, women have less access to or control over financial resources and powerful money network to address the challenges.
In terms of a financing strategy of women’s access to fund in three phases of political campaign, a gender equity policy should be included in statutes of political parties to ensure women candidate’s benefit from an equitable internal distribution of resources. Hence, political parties and funding networks can help women overcome the perceived barriers in electoral race and will set aside funds to train women and promote their active participation in politics and to make election campaign.
A ‘gender-targeted’ law should be adopted to channel public funds to women candidates for election. Electoral code for the parliamentary election should stipulate the use public funds for capacity development of women. The Election Commission should stop candidate’s disproportionate expenditure in election campaign and ensure equitable party and candidate’s access to resource.
It is imperative to emphasise that women activists must move forward for mechanisms to enhance their representation. A political will and commitment are, therefore, to be mobilised to strengthen advocating role and dialoguing with policymakers to introduce new electoral and socio-economic system conducive to an effective representation of women in the parliament.

Md Osman Ali is a retired joint chief at the Planning Commission.

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email