Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 13:51:53 -0600 (CST)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: BANGLADESH: Women Take Grassroots Path to Power
Article: 52725
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

/** headlines: 133.0 **/
** Topic: BANGLADESH: Women Take Grassroots Path to Power **
** Written 1:51 PM Jan 21, 1999 by mmason in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 3:06 PM Jan 18, 1999 by in ips.english */
/* ————— “DEVELOPMENT-BANGLADESH: Women Take” ————— */

Women Take Grassroots Path to Power

By Dev Raj, InterPress Service, 15 January 1999

GHAZIPUR, Bangladesh, Jan 15 (IPS)—Mahbuba Khatun sees no reason why she should not one day be prime minister. As elected member of a ‘Union Parishad’ (local body) this homemaker thinks she is well on the road to realising her ambition.

Mahbuba is not daunted by the fact that she is only one of 59,000 people (a third of them women) who were elected to some 4,500 Union Parishads across the country a little more than a year ago.

The wife of a drugstore owner, she is already one of the more prominent members of the relatively prosperous Sreepur Thana Union Parishad in this district which falls outside the capital city of Dhaka.

Besides, Khatun's political chances (and that of 14,000 other women members) brightened in November when Parliament legislated to create 463 ‘Upzilla Parishads' above the Union Parishads to which she became eligible to contest.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed who shares political centre-stage with another woman—opposition leader, Begum Khaleda Zia— says political opportunities for women would improve through the Upazila Parishads.

“Our women have always been at the forefront of public affairs,” she said proudly at a recent meeting with foreign journalists last month.

However, in spite of the success of Hasina and Khaleda, ordinary women lead restricted lives in largely Islamic Bangladesh where female literacy remains a low 30 percent.

Under the new law, a third of the Upazila Parishads will be made up of women to be elected by a college formed of women members of the Union Parishads. “I now stand a good chance,” Khatun said.

Upazila Parishads have been in existence in Bangladesh in the shape of Union Councils for more than a century but the institution was allowed to fall into disuse during two decades of military rule after a bloody coup in 1975.

An attempt at revival under former President Hussain Mohammed Ershad in the 1980s was scuttled in 1991 by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) government led by his successor Khaleda.

Finally the Awami League which returned to power in 1996 made good on a promise to reform governance by getting the controversial Upazila Parishad Bill passed after voting out about a hundred amendments moved by the opposition.

Although Upazila Parishads are supposed to be free of party politics, Opposition members recognising them as the new key to national power have been demanding that elections to them be conducted only under neutral caretaker governments.

But as a party which prides itself as having grassroots origins the Awami League is determined to go ahead with elections for the first five-year term of the Upazila Parishads early this year.

Once elected, the Upazila Parishads will prepare five-year- plans for their own social and economic development and provide badly needed coordination for various government departments says Haroun Al Rashid, a project implementation specialist.

According to Rashid, the Upazila Parishads will form the base of Bangladesh's four-tiered, pyramidal governance structure which has Parliament at the top.

Sandwiched in between are six administrative divisions sub- divided into 64 districts which continue to be run by the bureaucracy. “The idea is to have democracy seeping in from below and above,” Rashid said.

A former bureaucrat, Rashid is currently with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which has put 11 million dollars behind a good governance programme focusing on participation, gender equity, transparency and accountability.

According to UNDP chief in Bangladesh, David Lockwood the thrust of the project is to take decision-making away from remote government servants and place it directly in the hands of the people.

“There are problems including a shortage of resources but training people to handle their own problems has already made a big difference,” Lockwood said.

Over the last five years some 65,000 people have undergone training at the UNDP assisted National Institute of Local Governance (NILG) including in areas like licensing and taxation.

Gender training specialist at the NILG, Dr. Sayeda Rowshan Qadir says women elected to local bodies have benefited particularly from the gender mainstreaming modules specially designed by UNDP.

Lockwood said in UNDP's efforts to get to the poorest people it was important to establish the linkage between good governance and poverty especially in Bangladesh which has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world.

That funds are a problem is evident from the fact that Mahbuba and other members are supposed to draw a monthly honorarium of 500 Takas a month (10 dollars) but have actually not been paid for months.

But according to Rashid part of that problem has been owing to the reluctance of Union Parishad members to enforce local taxes and levy licenses for fear of losing popularity.

A petty shopkeeper in Sreepur, Hamid, said he did not think that the 100 takas (50 cents) he is expected to pay as taxes annually was worth it but hastened to add that he would rather pay to a local government than to central authority.

At Sreepur other problems familiar with local governance anywhere are visible. Member Abdus Salam Mollah complains that lucrative portfolios such as rural works and road building are monopolised by the chairperson.

Member Rokia Akhter said women like herself are denied important or visible projects and were usually asked to look after such low key areas as tree planting and women and child welfare.

Rokia whose husband is unemployed and is anxious to receive her honorarium was less upbeat than Mahbuba and did not share her colleague's optimism regarding political careers for women through the Upazila Parishads.

“Women cannot be ambitious unless they are actively supported by their menfolk—even Begum Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina owe their political fortunes to their men,” Akhter said.

For her part, Mahbuba gladly acknowledges that she receives active support for her career from her husband Mohammed Sattar. “Even my father-in-law helps me with advise,” she said.