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Human development and parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh

Interview - May 12, 2015

Speaker of Bangladesh’s Parliament, Jatiyo Sangshad, and new Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Executive Committee Chairperson, Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, sat down with United World to discuss the incredible progress that Bangladesh has made in human development as well as the role that parliamentary democracy has to play in Bangladesh’s future.


I would like to start by talking a little bit about the social development that the government has been working towards, this 2021 Vision, and how you have fit into that, not only as the speaker but previously as the Honorable Minister of Women and Children Affairs.

Social development is one of the major priorities of the government. It started in the first term from 2009 to 2014 and it's still continuing for the second term. It’s one of the major areas of focus. I will tell you in two parts. One is for all, for the people in general: men, women, older people, young generations, and children. One of the major areas is education. There has been lot of different things introduced in the education sector. We've had a new revised education policy in 2010, which has made quite significant changes in the whole process of education, and you girls were given incentives, like scholarship stipends for attending school. So, that has also helped a lot for girls to come into the mainstream of education and Bangladesh has been able to meet the MDG in gender parity in education, particularly, in the primary and tertiary level. A lot of focus has also been given to the obstacles which actually prevent girls from coming to schools and educational institutions; and why they don't continue the higher education.

Beyond this, on the first day of the year we distribute textbooks free of cost every year. It helps the parents because it takes off a lot of financial pressure textbooks are distributed free of cost. And many other issues like emphasizing the skill training, in very different technological trainings. Occupational training, not only theoretical, so after a point, they have an option to choose their profession. Because it has been encouraged that not everyone needs to go for the masters and highest studies in that direction. But occupational training would help them more in finding employment.

In the health sector there are the community clinics. At present time, I think about 11.000 community clinics have been set up throughout the country, and for every 6.000 people there has to be one community clinic. The community clinics are where people come, tell the doctors about their problems, get advice, and also get free medicine, to some extent. So, these community clinics have facilitated people in the rural areas, they are close to their homes. So they don’t have to travel a long way for the basic medical advice. On the other hand, once they come there, if it is a case which they cannot handle, then they are referred to other hospitals in the district or the division. So, there's this reference system also.

Another important element of the government’s efforts is the social safety net program. For the ultra poor people, the government gives the old-age allowance. People who are suffering from disability, they also have a separate allowance. Especially for women, with particular focus on eradicating feminization of poverty, because women often suffer poverty in a very different way. Then, there is lactating mothers' allowance, there is the maternal allowance, another for pregnant women. We have the Vulnerable Group Development programme, which gives out to 20kgs of rice to each women, ultra poor woman every month. So, 20Kgs of rice it's quite a lot. It's supports her family thought out the month. This is given to 750,000 women throughout the country. And, with the maternal allowance, which is given to the pregnant woman, 80.000 woman are covered.

So, the entire social safety net program is very important as it is for the government to release people out of poverty. But, this funding is priority from the revenue budget of the government. We are not taking any support from our developing partners or friends, in giving out the social safety net protection. This is totally from our own resources. The government has set up 4.500 information centers, in every union there is an information center, which actually has brought a revolution in the country, because people now come to this information centers… students are coming to fill their admission forms, to find information about which college they want to get admitted to.  There is also the multimedia, the connectivity, the videoconferencing… So very old women they also come to these centers and to talk with their sons, who have been living abroad for many years, and they can actually see him and have a conversation. So, it's really a major change there. These information centers also offer to the agriculture sector, to the farmers, the required information. In the schools they have had installed computer labs, where the children are getting used to internet facilities. These are the digital and technological changes that have taken place.

Separately, in the agriculture sector, we have become fully self-sufficient, because of the subsidy for farmers. Every farmer can open a bank account with 10 taka. Only by bringing 10 taka they can open a bank account, and through that account, they are given the subsidies. They are getting that for fertilizers, for all the other necessary things... So there's bumper production of rice, we are meeting our needs, and we are also exporting. So, I think these are the major policies, which the government has adopted. And in the process, there's a lot of cash flow to the rural areas, so people are finding opportunities to engage in very different activities to do something for themselves.

For women, it is again, even more special because even in the social safety net protection, there's a special focus for woman, ultra poor woman. The destitute women allowance, and others are all specially for the women. Lactating, maternal allowance for the pregnant woman. So maternal mortality has come down to a great extent. We are meeting the MDGs, in reducing maternal and infant mortality. There are programs adopted by the health ministry where they give pre-natal and post-natal checkups for pregnant women. So thorough the pre-natal systems, they identify if she needs cesarean and in that case, she will be translated to the hospital instead of the clinics. The government has taken up an initiative to train midwives. So they are doing it face by face.  Furthermore In the primary education sector, about 60% hasve to be woman teachers. So, that has also been introduced. In the government sector, where 80% are working women, the government is giving lactating mother allowance; which is a private sector actually, but, there are women, and also there women are introduced to this social safety net. Those women who are working in the government have been increased to 6 month with pay. It used to be 4 months, but now it is 6 months with pay.

We also promoted the national women developing policy, which is a very good policy, and a comprehensive one. But initially, there was a lot resistance from the fundamentalist quarters against these policies. We faced a lot trouble to push ahead with the policy, but the government did not back off, and it went ahead. So that was done, and also we passed the domestic violence, prevention and protection act 2010. That was another major step. We also passed the national children policy. So these three important milestones were also developed during that time. And you know that the honorable prime minister, Sheikh Hasina allowed school for women, to come into the arm forces, the navy, the air force, everywhere. Many women policies are doing very well, in all this sectors across the country. And of course, our first woman speaker was a major step also in the women empowerment. Bangladesh's parliament is perhaps the only parliament in the world where the leader of the house, the leader of the opposition, the deputy leader and the speaker are women. Very important constitutional positions are held by women. There are all stories about women empowerment in this country.

The development agenda is clearly very comprehensive. How do you see the 10th parliament taking into consideration the significant political unrest?

You know in December of 2008, the president ruling party Awami League came in with and overwhelming majority, through a very free, fair and credible election. This government continued for five years. And as for the constitution of Bangladesh, every five years, there has to be an election, if not earlier. It depends on the government if they want to give election earlier.  It always has that option, but generally it's five year term and after that, you have to have an election. So, according to this, there was time for election in 2014, having completed five years. There was a lot of noise from the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) because they were pressing for a caretaker government. They were not willing to come to election under the existing government. But what the constitution actually says is that the government, during the time of election, does the routine work. In the opposition they were not happy to take part in an election under that format… so they were pressing for caretaker government. We have had caretaker government previously, but subsequently the validity of the legality of the caretaker government was challenged before the court of and the highest court, actually declared that it ultra vires the constitution. So, when it was declared ultra vires, there was no scoop to go back to that system anymore.

There was a lot of negotiation, trying to talk out what would be the best way to go about it, “come and join the election”. But somehow it didn't work. The discussions did not really met allies, and the opposition did not join the 5th January election. But there was no option but to go ahead with the election, because it was a constitutional obligation. What else would one do? You can't sort of come out of the constitutional framework, because there's a consensus. So in that kind of consensus, election had to go on. So the election took place, but what we noticed before the elections, in the last three months, was a lot of violence. The kind that we are now witnessing, similar to that. But in spite of all that, the election took place. And after the election, everything succeeded. It was very interesting to see that on the 5th of January 2014, once the election was over, everyone was out the streets. It was a spontaneous response of the people, with I feel not even a political party could even ensure. It happened automatically, because people did not like the blockade, the violence... It was like they were sort of compelled. It sort of brought a halt to their regular life, and that wasn't something they wanted. So, once the election was over, they were just carrying on their normal lives. That is how it happened.

Now, from 29th January 2014, the 10th parliament started cooperating. We had had our forth session, this is the fifth session. We had our budget session and we carried on. The parliament carried on, with 16 independent members in the parliament, we have not had any boycott, which we used to have previously. There was more of their absence than presence. They never participated in the question-answer session of the prime minister. Every Wednesday, a half an hour question-answer session is fixed for the prime minister to answer. And in that session, in the past, we have not seen the opposition been present. They used to boycott that. So we have seen some positive presence in the 10th parliament, which is helpful for democracy. The participation of the opposition throughout the sessions, and also in the question-answer session of the prime minister. And there are more into constructive criticisms of the government.  As the leader of the opposition has often expressed in her views and in many others in the opposition, that it's not that every step that the government takes, they are going to oppose. If they feel that something good is being done, they want to support it, but on the other hand, if they feel that's something the government is not being able to do or it's not doing, then they will criticize.  

You were recently elected Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Executive Committee Chairperson; what are some of your priorities?

CPA is a very unique platform of parliaments of Common Wealth countries. And the beauty of it, it's the union in diversity. It brings in a lot of diverse groups and regions but a lot of commonalities also, between them. So, the other thing is that it's not only the national parliaments of the 33 Commonwealth countries, but also the provincial parliaments. So it's about 180 parliaments that CPA actually represents. So, I think it's a very strong platform also to raise the voice of the people on issues that affects their life in a very fundamental way, across the Common Wealth region. So this people who are in the CPA, the parliamentarians, they're actually representing the voices of the people of the Commonwealth region. So there're many aspirations, many common goals, which affect them, which needs to be consolidated, fortified, and can be raised from CPA platform even deeper. 

CPA emphasizes on of course, democracy, rule of law... all of that is there. But in addition, how much, how far we can sensitize the parliaments to be more gender friendly? How we can ensure more representation in the parliament thought political processes, through direct elections? Because we don't have many women parliamentarians coming through the political process of direct elections. So, what are the obstacles? How can we handle that? Promoting the women political empowerment and leadership. That is one area that we would like further focus. We are doing it but that would be more intensified. We are going through a transition, in terms of the entire global development arena, because there'll be a shift from MDGs to SDGs.  But in that discourse, are will be able to make the parliaments heard? So far they are being able to talk about the issues, about what the CPA parliamentarians want? How can we sort of mainstream that with the government process? So, that is something we are looking at. We'll try to talk in the Commonwealth heads of governments' meeting. We'll sort of try to link it up, and see if we can aloud the parliamentarians to have a voice in that process. These are the issues  I’m looking at.

You've been previously recognized by the Asia Society in terms of your humanitarian service, beyond this, your achievements are too numerous to mention, you are the youngest speaker of Parliament ever. After your term as speaker has end, what do you hope to continue doing for Bangladesh? Where do you see your position in the future?

I'm a lawyer by profession. I've had 15 years of practice in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh before I took up the position of a member of parliament and the State Minister. Now, I’m very much involved in politics. So even if a don't want any positions in the government or in parliament, I'll be very much involved in my party's activities. So that will always be there. And that is quite a lot, you know? Of course, promoting gender equality is something where we'll need a lot more work. So I will also be involved in that area. I'm quite fascinated and I wouldn't mind to go and pursue some more research oriented academic activity in some of these universities. If I get the opportunity to be a part-time lecturer or something, have a link and talk to them from the human rights center in Essex University. So there are so many things to pursue...