The politics of negotiating gender equity in Bangladesh
Working paper 76
Sohela Nazneen and Rezwan Masud
In Bangladesh there is a paradox when it comes to securing gender-inclusive development outcomes. Since 1991, women have occupied the highest political office and women’s presence is increasing, due to the existence of gender quotas. Women’s movement actors have a long history of mobilisation for women’s rights and securing progressive changes. However, this overlooks the complex ways in which power and politics operate in Bangladesh, including the difficulties of mobilising women as a political force in a patriarchal, informalised, clientelist context. Women, as a political group, have little to offer the ruling elites in Bangladesh: they do not vote as a block; gender equity concerns have little currency in mainstream politics; and women’s organisations are weak actors in the formal political arena. This paper investigates two successful policy cases – the Domestic Violence Act 2010, and the expansion of access to primary education for girls – to investigate what led the state to address gender equity concerns successfully in some policy areas in a competitive clientelist context? What role, if any, did women and their allies play to make these changes happen? Why do some failures in implementation persist?
Findings indicate that the alignment between each policy reform and the dominant interests and ideas of the ruling coalition influenced the capacity and commitment accorded to each agenda. Progress on passing the Domestic Violence Act was made through the high degree of personal, historical and informal relations with supportive people in government. Opportunity was created by a key moment of state formation which opened up an absence of partisan politicking and a supportive advocate at the centre of government. Expansion of girls’ access to primary education was carried along by a wave of political support for the expansion agenda, which fitted closely with powerful political logics concerning ideas, patronage, distribution, legitimacy and international support. In both cases, transnational actors, events and discourses are able to tip the balance in favour of women’s rights, and South-South exchanges can play a vital role in promoting women’s rights. Both cases reveal how the political settlement has shaped the promotion of gender equity in Bangladesh, and the value of moving beyond the usual focus on the impact of gender quotas and the effectiveness of state gender machinery, to the deeper forms of politics and power relations that shape progress on this front.