III: The significance of informal networks: promoting gender equity in competitive settlements

7 Building strategic relationships with the political elites

Building strategic relationships with the political elites: the politics of Bangladesh’s Domestic Violence Act 2010

Sohela Nazneen


Bangladesh presents an interesting paradox when it comes to women’s inclusion in politics and securing gender-inclusive development outcomes. Since the democratic transition in 1991, women have occupied the highest political office, and women’s presence in politics in general has increased, due to the existence of gender quotas at the national and local levels of government. Women’s movement actors have also been active in policy spaces since this turning point. Recently, Bangladesh has been lauded for its remarkable pace in reducing maternal mortality and fertility rates, reaching gender parity in primary and secondary school enrolment, and for enacting various laws addressing violence against women (World Bank 2008). Increased women’s presence in formal politics and policy spaces alongside these achievements in securing gender-equitable development outcomes would indicate that a positive relationship exists between women’s inclusion in politics and their influence over policy outcomes (Escobar-Lemmon and Taylor-Robinson 2014).

However, this interpretation overlooks the complex ways in which power and politics operate in Bangladesh, including the difficulties of mobilizing women as a political force in a patriarchal, informalized, clientelist context (Hassan 2013). Women, as a political group, have little to offer to the ruling elites in Bangladesh because they do not vote as a bloc, because gender equity concerns have little currency in mainstream politics, and because women’s organizations are weak actors in the formal political arena. Moreover, the progress that Bangladesh has made in securing gender-equitable development outcomes, while significant, should not be exaggerated. The country has failed to adopt some more transformative policy agendas or to implement many policy reforms effectively. In particular, Bangladesh has high levels of violence against women—the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ (2011) survey of 12,000 women revealed that about 87 percent of ever-married women have experienced some form of violence in the last year— despite the various laws enacted to protect women.

These failures and constraints raise the following questions: What led the state to address gender equity concerns in some policy areas successfully? What role did women and their allies play to make these changes happen? Why do some of the failures in implementation persist, even after the successful adoption of policies? The answers to these questions require an engagement with how deeper forms of politics and power relations shape the adoption and progress of gender equity policies, which include, but go beyond, the presence of women in formal political institutions. This means unpacking how power relations are organized between different groups of actors in overlapping domains of power and how they both engage with formal processes, as well as use informal networks and relationships to promote or constrain gender-inclusive policy change. In this chapter, I explore these questions through a qualitative case-study analysis of a reform aimed at promoting gender equity, the Domestic Violence Act of 2010, which was selected as a transformative legal reform that challenges patriarchal ideology.

Scholars have identified Bangladesh as reflecting a ‘competitive clientelist’ type of political settlement (Khan 2010, Levy 2014), in that (until recently) elites had to struggle constantly to assert their power and legitimacy vis-à-vis other organized elites with a similar level of power in a context within which political power was expected to change hands regularly. Such contexts tend to limit the time horizons of political elites to short-term considerations of maintaining power, and encourage the politicization of public space and bureaucracy and the treatment of political subjects as clients. By applying the power domains approach developed in Chapter 2 that incorporates the influence of political settlement dynamics on women’s political inclusion and the promotion of gender equity, 1 investigate the nature of women’s inclusion in Bangladesh and how far this shaped their ability to promote these reforms. I examine the nature of women’s inclusion in critical junctures of Bangladesh’s history that led to women being able to demand change; the influence of ideas and discourses (both national and international) that created ‘windows of opportunity’1 (Waylen 1998) for women to make claims; the interests and incentives of the ruling elites, and also other actors that have a considerable stake in supporting or opposing these gender-equitable changes; and the institutional norms that flow from the competitive clientelist character of the political settlement.

I used the process-tracing method to identify the causal factors behind the adoption of the Domestic Violence Act in Bangladesh. This involved constructing a timeline that captured the major events that led to the policy change, mapping and interviewing the key actors involved in policy negotiations, analysing relevant secondary literature and policy documents, and participant observation of two internal policy meetings. In total, 20 interviews were carried out with key members of Citizen’s Initiative Against Domestic Violence (CiDV), female MPs, the secretary of the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs (MOWCA), magistrates, and officers (see Appendix 4 for a full list of participants).

In the next section, I provide a brief overview of women’s inclusion and influence in politics and policy-making in Bangladesh and of the nature of its political settlement. I broadly outline the policy adoption story in the third section. In the final section, I analyse the key findings in terms of the power domains approach and discuss what value the insights from this case study add towards understanding how pro-gender equity policy coalitions promote specific agendas in a competitive clientelist context.

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