Empowering female voters in Bangladesh – a story from the ground at the occasion of International Day of Democracy
Tomorrow (15/09) the world will celebrate the UN's International Day of Democracy. Democratic values are deeply rooted in the EU countries and the recent events of Arab Spring showed that, without respect for freedom and human rights, development of a country is not possible.
Therefore, the EU has put democratisation and human rights at the core of its development policy. The European Commission has spelled it out in the latest policy proposal, an "Agenda for Change" which has been endorsed by EU Member States. As democracy will be celebrated all around the world, it is worth exploring how the EU can help partner countries in improving their democratic practices.
Take a look at Bangladesh for instance. The Parliamentary election in that country scheduled for January 2007 was called off due, in part, to an inaccurate electoral roll. Through the Preparation of Electoral Roll with Photographs (PERP) project, to which the EU is the biggest foreign contributor, the first ever computerised photo voter list of 81 million voters was compiled in less than a year, which reduced the risk of electoral fraud and helped to run smoothly the elections in 2008.
However, as the electoral roll required a photo ID, women would have to unveil for photos to be taken. As Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, the project also took religious sensitivity in mind, and educated people that under Islamic law it is acceptable to take off the head scarf for photos used in official documents. Hamida Begum, a 50 year old housewife, explained: "My husband came home from Friday prayer one afternoon, and told me that the Imam was encouraging everyone, including women, to go out and register as voters. I did not have any problems with taking a picture of myself. It is not forbidden to take such pictures for official documents. Women finally feel confident and secure because they have an official identity. The laws outlined in the Bangladesh constitution are finally being practiced."
The impact of this project was very positive. It contributed to fair, credible and transparent elections in December 2008 (87% turnout); more than half of the registered voters were women. Sharmeen Sultana, a 43 year voter from Dhaka said that she was very happy that every Bangladeshi can now show their identity as a citizen. She added: "As a woman, I no longer have to rely on my husband, father or son when I go to a bank or other service providers. I can use my new identification card to prove my identity."
The EU contributed €15 million to this project.