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Women’s Political Leadership in Bangladesh: Intersectionality, Accessibility and Way Forward

Bangladesh is known globally for the significant strides it has made when it comes to gender equality, the most notable being in terms of declining maternal mortality rates and gender parity in school enrollment. It is also applauded widely because both the Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition have been women since 1991. As a “developing” nation, Bangladesh must also be commended for ensuring 50 reserved seats for women in Parliament. While the reasons behind these women claiming positions of power can be many, whether it actually leads to decision-making power or representation of voice or whether the quota system works in reality, are relevant questions too. However, it appears that these positions are not equally accessible to women across different intersections of society. While women have only very recently been able to create spaces for themselves and break the glass ceiling as CEOs of multinationals operating in the country, we are yet to achieve inclusion and diversity for marginalised groups, specifically in political leadership positions.

In this article, I analyse the lack of accessibility of leadership roles across different levels in electoral politics and the scope for an inclusive leadership of women in Bangladesh across all sectors.

Representational Image, Source: DhakaTribune

Women under PWD (Persons with Disability) category, Trans women, and Dalit women are still a minority and lack access to resources, education and information, leading to a lack of representation and equal opportunities and rights. When they are brought on board while designing policy strategies and interventions, it is done very much as a checklist. Finally, while specific segments of these policies and interventions mention these marginalised communities, bringing them to action is another struggle. Added to that, the biases that still exist in society further marginalise these groups, especially when they are doubly marginalised (for example, a PWD, who is also a transwoman). With such fundamental social, economic and cultural inequalities, representation from these groups in political leadership and positions of power is almost absent. To think of a trans person or a PWD to be in a leadership position in Bangladesh remains far from achievable when they still lack basic access to resources and rights, which cannot be ensured until they are included in Government policies and plans.

For instance, the 8th Five-year plan for Bangladesh aims to bring the country closer to attaining an “upper-middle-income” status and is aligned with achieving the SDGs. In this plan, the focus is on bringing down poverty rates, priority on job creation and ensuring safe water and sanitation for all, amongst others which are still essential for Bangladesh today. And while these are important indicators to measure the growth of a nation quantitatively, it lacks a social and intersectional lens. It also mentions the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs’ work on gender equality and women’s empowerment, but that too lacks an intersectional lens and does not mention trans communities. This plan, and other government initiatives such as this, do not prioritise issues like inclusive education for trans people or PWD.

If we look at the Bangladesh education factsheet-2020, prepared by UNICEF and Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there is no mention of trans children. Disability, as an issue, comes up in Chapter 6 (out of 7 chapters), as if added as an afterthought. Furthermore, disability is looked at very broadly, and there is no way of understanding how it is defined. There is also no gender-segregated data on children with disability, apart from what is mentioned on “functional disabilities” and mental depression among girls and boys in school. It is also important to note that gender and sex-segregated data on school dropouts, for instance, is being included as a recent phenomenon.

Some other steps recently taken include creating jobs for trans women (such as, in traffic control, for instance). However, they are few in number and lack a longer-term, sustainable approach. And so, as mentioned above, we are yet to see leaders emerging from these groups - elected as parliament members, or appointed as heads of agencies, trendsetters in sports when their education itself is still not ensured.

So, what can be done going forward? First and foremost, the various acts and strategies must be aligned, and marginalised groups must have their voices represented through documents such as the 8th Five-year plan, and more so at decision-making tables. While formulating these acts, a token representative from the groups mentioned above will not be enough; we need to ensure that their needs are addressed and that the changes will be measured once these acts are in place. The 8th Five-year plan’s disability section, for starters, needs to be aligned with the Persons with Disability Rights and Protection Act, 2001: this particular act talks about the right to “inclusive education” for PWD.

We also need to have research-based evidence and data on impact (and gaps) and use them to design programmatic interventions. For example, according to sources, 3.2 Million youth have disabilities. Some positive examples can be ILO’s work, to build skills and promote inclusive policies so that PWD are included as part of society. Similarly, Prime Asia University has started to offer free education to transgender people and this is just the very first step. If we can now monitor the journeys of these individuals who are just beginning to get a university education, it can be used to advocate for inclusive leadership-on how when given the right opportunities, individuals can go on to become leaders in multiple sectors.

In this piece, I have looked at the lack of accessibility of leadership roles across different levels in electoral politics, as well as the scope for an inclusive political leadership of women in Bangladesh across all sectors. I have discussed the situation as it exists for women and other marginalised groups. And while significant gains have been made in recent years for the country, such grand gestures alone, as exemplified above will not be enough. We need to have grassroots and marginalised voices and representation at all levels while designing interventions, developing acts and strategies, and doing so meaningfully. We need to hear marginalised groups’ voices, not speak on their behalf. Simultaneously, documents and policies alone will also not be enough; to break free from social and cultural taboos and stigma that still affect the marginalised, the work needs to start from our families and societies. We need to break free from prejudices and mindsets that refrain us from accepting diversity and plurality- and that can’t be achieved with documents and strategies alone. We must raise children who recognise their privileges and make space for others. We also need to think big and consciously create ways to make leadership accessible to all. Only then will we be able to build a society that will include leaders across all spectrums - men, women, queer, abled, disabled, and all others.

Syeda Samara Mortada

Syeda is a feminist activist, working as the Coordinator of Bonhishkha, a feminist organisation in Bangladesh, working to ensure gender equality across all spectrums, removing gender-based stereotypes, and creating a platform for youth to share their gender-based experiences, using arts as the main form to interact.

She is a core organiser of the RageAgainstRape movement in Bangladesh and a core member of the coalition called Feminists Across Generations. Samara is an IVLP Fellow and an Acumen Fellow, 2021.

This article gives the author's views and does not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.

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