The Bangladesh Paradox – An Interview with Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury

Carl-Gustav Lindén

Bangladesh has made some remarkable strides in development and poverty reduction since independence, despite generally weak governance. This ‘Bangladesh paradox’ has been discussed by UNU-WIDER Research Associate Lucy Scott, now at ODI (see part one and Part of the Bangladesh paradox is the strong presence of prominent women in national politics, despite women’s generally unequal position in society. For instance, the quota for women in parliament was raised to 50 out of 350 in 2011, but the actual number is higher. That means that 20% of the seats belong to women, which is much more than in most developing countries but less than the often quoted critical mass of 30% set by the follow up to the Beijing Platform for Action. And it should be noted that the majority of people in the country living on US$1 a day are women.

Recently the UNU-WIDER communications specialist Carl-Gustav Lindén had the opportunity to ask one these prominent women what does it takes to be a female politician in the country. Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury is the current, and first ever, woman, Speaker of the Parliament of Bangladesh, having previously served as the State Minister of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. Dr Chaudhury, of the ruling Awami (Bangladesh People's) League, has been a practicing lawyer for many years. Having been awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship, she gained her PhD in constitutional law in 2000 from the University of Essex, UK. She has conducted many human rights cases involving constitutional issues.

Dr Chaudhury was also one of the members of the lawyers’ panel in the cases filed against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2008-09.

Here are some excerpts from that interview, which was conducted during the ReCom results meeting ‘Aid for Gender Equality’ in Copenhagen on 16 December, 2013.

What is it like to be a female politician in Bangladesh?

‘A female politician in Bangladesh sends out a very positive and profound message throughout the globe about the political empowerment of women. And being elected as the first woman Speaker of Bangladesh was the major breakthrough. And it is not an uncommon thing in Bangladesh because we have our honorable Prime Minister who is a woman, the Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister a woman, the Deputy Leader of the House is a woman, and now a woman Speaker. So the four very important and key positions in the House of Representatives, the Parliament are held by women at the moment, which is a very, very unique example, and I don’t think it matches with any other country at the moment.’

So how does it reflect the conditions for women in Bangladesh, what does it mean to have women in high political offices?

‘It actually sends out a very positive message throughout the country for women, and they own you as you are their representative. So actually, when I am administering the Parliament, it is not me alone, but I am representing almost 50% of the population of the country. It also tells that these positions are available for women, and if they can prove themselves they can also be holding similar positions.

So I think that is very important in the context of gender equality and womens empowerment overall. And it is not that women are just holding these positions but they are performing well, and they are doing their job, and they are discharging their responsibility with great care.’

What has been your main takeaway from this ReCom results meeting ‘Aid for Gender Equality’?

‘How we can actually put the aid into its utmost effectiveness, and what are the restraints or constraints that are still there, which need to be addressed to ensure aid effectiveness; and coming from a recipient country, how we can actually foster a greater partnership with the developing partners.

I strongly believe that country ownership should be there, and the priority should be assigned on the basis of national policy and not be something imposed or donor driven. So, in order to facilitate that, it is important to have a very good partnership with the developing partners through an important mechanism like the Joint Cooperation Strategy, JCS, and the Local Consultative Group, LCG. The focus on aid effectiveness and ensuring gender equality also needs to be brought to the forefront.’

As a minister you developed the inclusive budgeting system. How does that turned out in practice?

‘It is actually a role model, the gender responsive budgeting in Bangladesh. Initially it was started with covering only four ministries, and subsequently it was extended to cover 10, and now it actually is applicable for 40 ministries. And we not only have specific allocation for women in health, in education, in the public service, but also monitoring mechanism and indicators to actually assess how far this allocation is benefiting women and to what extent. So it is really working out well.

We have shared this model in many international forums like the Commonwealth Gender Monitoring Group, CGPMG, where I held the Gender Chair for two years in Bangladesh. The other very important program in Bangladesh is on social security and the social safety net, protection for the vulnerable women, cash transfers given to the poor and marginalized women, for lactating poor mothers, for pregnant women, the widows. That has worked very well because it had an intense focus on eradication of the feminization of poverty within the broader goal of poverty eradication, which the government pursues. But I think this is a unique feature of addressing feminization of poverty because women and women-headed families, they experience poverty in a very dire form in comparison to male-headed families.

So there are other constraints - like gender violence, the overall socioeconomic perception, cultural barriers - which put women in a more vulnerable situation. The social safety net protection given to these has actually made a lot of difference. And there has been a significant decline in the poverty in the last few years, which is remarkable progress.

WIDERAngle newsletter
January 2014
ISSN 1238-9544