Building Constituencies for Equality and Justice
Our Building Constituencies for Equality and Justice theme came out of the entry point of 'Voice'. From women's ability to exert control over the decisions that affect her everyday life to issues of representation and political effectiveness in institutions at all levels.
Our projects under this theme look at both how to change institutions to make them more accountable and responsive to women and at processes of policy change, alliance and coalition building that can bring about and support these changes.
A sample of our activities around this theme over the last year includes:
Women's Empowerment through Local Governance
Pathways South Asia convened at BRAC Development Institute, BRAC University carried out research on women councillors in local government in Bangladesh. Local government reforms in Bangladesh aimed to create space for women through the following provisions: a) direct election to one-third of the seats that are reserved for women; b) one-third of the projects implemented by the local councils are chaired by women and another two-thirds include female members. These provisions were made in the late 1990s. Since then two local government elections have taken place and the current generation of councillors are the ‘third generation’ who have come into power. The objectives of this study were to explore: a) the challenges faced by women councillors; b) how they negotiate these challenges; c) their own interpretation of their engagement pattern and processes; d) whether new values are being created.
The study used mixed methods: a survey covering 600 women councillors in 13 districts (administrative units); and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and in depth interviews with women councillors, male councillors, and chairpeople of local councils. FGDs were also carried out with the selected communities and the local administrative officers were interviewed. The study findings corroborate other studies that the reforms have opened up spaces for women and increased their visibility in formal political and ‘male’ spaces (i.e., local bazaars or markets; community spaces, administrative offices for campaigning and monitoring of public works). In fact, the majority of the women councillors surveyed reported a high rate of engagement with development project implementation, local dispute resolution, and programmes for creating social safety nets. (These were corroborated in the FGDs with other members and the community). There is a high level of acceptance and satisfaction among the community regarding women councillor’s performance in implementing safety net related programmes and development projects. The majority of the women councillors also play a key role in resolving disputes related to dowry, divorce, polygamy etc, key areas which affect women’s lives in Bangladesh. However, women face strong opposition from the male councillors who perceive them as being ‘favoured’ by the government. This is further exacerbated by the fact that women represent three electoral wards, and each of these wards also has a male councillor. This creates competition over resources and problems of jurisdiction.
Family’s financial support and links with the local government play crucial roles in getting women into the office. Moreover, women identified NGO training to be vital for gaining knowledge about the local government systems and laws. The importance of family’s material and social networks indicates that who is able to participate and contest elections may leave out women from poor communities. Interestingly, interviews reveal that women who are from lower income groups have been more assertive in challenging decisions at the local councils. This may be due to the fact that their socio economic milieu is different from other members, and their supporters, whose interests they represent, have divergent interests than other council members.
The Potential Impact of the Research?
The findings reveal where the civil society organisations and the state need to focus on:
- The research reveals that NGO training and training by women’s organisations have positively affected women’s confidence, knowledge and capacity to tackle the various challenges. The study findings on the different strategies used by women to tackle difficulties could be used as material for further trainings by NGOs, women’s organisations and the government.
- The team has already sat with the electoral commission and the department of local government (LGED) and discussed the issues related to demarcation of wards and female constituency.
- The vertical and horizontal linkages that these training networks provide have been useful for women to negotiate their rights, and these networks need to be strengthened. The NGO programmes and women’s organisations need to take initiatives in this regard.
- Male councillors need to be trained and their attitude needs to change, which requires training materials and also gender audits.
- Campaign finance is a key factor that may limit which type of women may run as candidates, since not everyone’s family has material resources. There needs to alternative channels of funding for inclusion of poor women.
Why is This Research Novel?
The research is interesting because it focuses on women who have come into electoral positions ten years after the reforms were introduced. This allows the research to go beyond the traditional analysis done on the structural and attitudinal challenges faced by women councillors, and focus on the changes that are taking place. For example, the positive changes in how local community perceives women councillors and their role. The originality of the research is that it captures the dynamics of change and empowerment from women councillor’s point of view and challenges the established interpretation of empowerment. For example, how the women councillors strategically use husbands to garner support for their positions. Generally, this is interpreted in the literature as a weakness and women’s lack of authority. However, women argue that they perceive this strategic use as ‘co-operative’ behaviour on part of the husbands.