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Women Parliamentary Caucuses to ensure gender equality

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12th-Apr-2018       
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Md Osman Ali, Retired Joint Chief :
A caucus is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, a meeting of the members of a legislative body, who are members of a particular political party, to select candidates or decide policy. Caucus is widely believed to be an important arrangement for bringing parliamentarians together across political party lines so that they may share information, discuss policy issues, channel common interests and concerns and engage with civil society. Women's caucus or women parliamentary group   is a mechanism within the parliaments of respective country to strengthen cooperation among women engaged in politics. The women parliamentary caucuses (WPC) established at the national, regional and district level provide a platform to unite women parliamentarians from different political parties around issues they all can support beyond party lines to fight for women's causes or collaborate on other policy issues.
The 'women caucus' adopts, according to the political and cultural connotations, widely different names:  Forum of Rwandan Women Parliamentarians in Rwanda, Women's Political Caucus in Indonesia, Women's Parliamentary Club in Macedonia, Congressional Cauca's for women in USA, Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament in United Kingdom, Women Parliamentary Caucus in Pakistan, Parliamentary women's caucus in Bangladesh etc .  In each case the name is naturally be determined, at least in part, by the objectives of the caucus in a respective country
The study will examine to what extent the women caucus work together across party lines to promote women's equal access to decision making process in the parliament and to increase women's political participation in the country. As such this study will look at background information in establishing WPC, its leadership model, strategic activity and challenges encountered to achieve its objectives.
Environment to Establish WPC : Women are typically excluded from the public sphere on the basis gender. In legislature around the world, women account for only about 23 per cent of parliamentary seat in 2015. However, there is dramatic increase recently in political participation of women in most areas of the world. Rwanda has a proportion of 64% women in parliament, followed by Sweden with 44 percent and South Africa with 42 percent. In almost all developing countries women form a minority in parliament. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 1995 report findings showed that women as a group, to exert a meaningful influence in legislative bodies, required a 30% level of representation. Women in national assembly' in the SAARC countries (Afghanistan 28%, Bhutan 9% India 12% Pakistan 21% Nepal 30% Srilanka 5%  Maldives 10%) especially in Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan is  over 20 percent. Women representation in Bangladesh parliament is also 20 percent which is traditionally dominated by male-centered representatives. In many instances women parliamentarian are not viewed as equals by their male peers.  Consequently, they have had no proper spaces enabling them to make their voices heard in societal and political decision making process.
Women parliamentarians mostly worked in isolation, without enough sharing of inter- and intra-party experiences. It is difficult, without necessary support for them, to affect the policy agenda in the parliament.  Hence, there was feeling among the women parliamentarian about necessity of association for working together to promote specific reforms in the laws and policies. Women were also discovering that there   exists greater strength in numbers. They accordingly expressed a genuine interest in forming a caucus.  Besides, there was also women's movement among women activists and women's civil society groups who are prepared to work in partnership under caucus. A forum "Celebrating Women's Leadership in Bangladesh," brought together female MPs and other Bangladeshi women with political aspirations to inspire and encourage them to run for office and to work together across party lines to increase women's political participation in the country. Hence a multi-party women caucus at the initiative of the Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership (BDAWL) was formed in 2010 to support elected women representatives on women issues  and to measure  progress on women's legislative issues and to cooperate across party lines on issues of importance to women. BDAWL, with NDI support, help a core group of women political leaders outline a caucus charter.  There is so long lack of assessment on extent of progress of caucus activities   and preparation of its charter. However, there is development of collaborative attitude among women parliamentarian to work together for equal access to decision making process in the parliament. Hence WPC was established in Bangladesh in November 2011 with the support of PRODIP, a project supported by USAID, UKAid and implemented by the Asia foundation and SUNY.  They raised their collective voices on issues that affect women's lives and transcending their party politics,  religion, and district for the common goal of women's empowerment to ensure their the adequate involvement  in parliament, its committees and other  parliamentary bodies, and have an influence over the policy making processes.  They can now identify non-partisan issues despite extreme political conflict; endorse a platform for improving women's political participation.
Leadership and Membership: There are a number of different models and structures of women's caucuses that can be used to best suit the local political context.
The Rwandan Women Parliamentary Forum has five governing structures. The General Assembly, Executive Committee, the Standing Committees, the Audit Committee. The last governing structure is the Executive Secretary, which is in charge of the forum's daily management.
In Finland, there is no a formal women's caucus in parliament. Women Parliamentarians formed the Network of Women Deputies of the Finnish Parliament. The practical aspects of the network's activities are handled by an executive committee elected each year by the general assembly. The president and the vice-president of the network are appointed for a year, chosen in turn from each of the different caucuses.
The WPC in Pakistan consists of two tiers, the General Body, a larger forum of 93 members, and the Working Council which comprises 10 members. Woman's Parliamentary Caucus was formed under the leadership of Speaker of the National Assembly, who was patron of the Caucus,
The WPC is run by its executive council. The issue of partisanship, if any, is addressed by giving one seat on the executive council to each party and rotating its presidency among the different parties to give more women opportunities at leadership positions. In Nepal, the chairwomen of the Women's Caucus are elected for a one-year term. Additionally, if the chair of the caucus is of one party the vice chair is of the other party..  
The WPC may be formal or informal by definition. Formal caucuses are formed by a parliamentary resolution and their specific roles and responsibilities are outlined in the parliament's internal rules. Informal caucuses are not formal structures of parliament   but require to abide by national regulations that apply to other groups and enjoy more freedom than formal caucuses from parliamentary rules. It is, in Bangladesh, an informal caucus with a core group of eleven members and works on national women's issues within the broader parameters of the parliament.  Other women MPs of the parliament occasionally involve themselves with different initiatives of this caucus . The WPC serve as a melting pot of sorts; despite the divergent and often contentious views of political parties on many issues. The Caucus can nominate former parliamentarians, as in El Salvador and Panama and male parliamentarians as in Uganda as member who enhance the profile and momentum of a caucus, and pursue gender equality issues effectively. The civil society's representatives, as in Indonesia and Afghanistan, are also included as members of caucus. The WPC eleven members, in Bangladesh, can represent a broad spectrum of politics. Its internal organization as well as the commitment and dedication of its members along with political party's support and will, are keys to its success.
Objectives : The overall goal of the WPC in Bangladesh is to promote gender ideals and women empowerment in all legislative activities. However, its specific objectives are designed keeping in view overall goal .These are as follows
Advocating or lobbing  for legislation or amendment of existing legislation on  issues of gender equality and women empowerment,
Enhancing  the capacity of women parliamentarians as effective legislators and  representatives
Sensitizing the  parliamentarians to the principles of gender equality  
Facilitate networking with other organizations and institutions within and outside the country  for promoting gender equality and participation
Facilitating to work as an effective 'watch dog'  for  gender equality  and women rights issues  undertaken or already undertaken for legislation in the parliament
Focusing public attention of women  through skill use of media and on matters affecting women in the country, regionally and Internationally across party lines
Activities of WPC: The activities of a caucus depend on what it wants to accomplish. Caucuses engage in a variety of activities they support. The WPCs identify and develop specific policy and legislative agenda on women issues (Women Economic Activity, Health, Security, Education, Leadership issues etc) that require deeper examination, collecting data and conducting investigations so as to strengthen the advocacy impact of the caucus. These activities can in particular be undertaken in collaboration with government and research institutions, or with women organization, civil society organizations
According to its stated objectives, the WPCs encourage collegiality, participation and cooperation among elected women in parliament beyond party lines to develop consensus on women priority issues both within and outside the parliament. The WPCs facilitate discussion among citizens, politicians and government   on issues of a great significance for the country and especially for women. The WPCs often undertakes a variety of meetings, seminars and   to promote gender equality efforts in parliament and to help identify gender issues and to understand how parliamentary works are strategic in creating gender equality and justice.
The WPCs, as in Uganda , organize seminars in partnership with the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Ministry of Law and parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Home and department of Police on the enforcement of the laws If any, they help pass: The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 and 2003, The Domestic Violence (Protection and Prevention) Act, 2010 and others.
 Practically, the activities of the WPCs include empowerment of women parliamentarian to promote gender equality issues and women advancement. Hence the WPCs have to sensitize all Parliamentarians on the principles, policies and regulatory frameworks governing gender equality and equity in order to facilitate their effective representative, legislative and oversight functions. To this end   the WPC's proper functioning mostly depends on close cooperation of parliamentary committee. Hence the WPC urges   parliamentary committees and other complementary bodies to exert an influence so that incorporation of women's issues and interests in the policy-making processes and legislation is ensured
WPC's relationship with Parliamentary Committee : There is also a great potential for WPC and parliamentary committees to work in a complementary manner. Parliamentary committees being formal bodies of parliament, draft, review legislation, hold hearings and conduct other parliamentary functions. Parliamentary committees are more closely regulated by parliamentary rules and have more legislative power than caucuses. The WPCs responsibility  as informal groups   include  lobbying for  legislation, conduct outreach activities, gain visibility for women's issues and articulate  women's interests and gender equality issues and accomplish other stated goals .  Though WPCs   have no formal legislative responsibilities, they can be more persuasive, mainly through advocacy, which is frequently a priority among their informal activities.
 The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)'s global survey on Gender-sensitive Parliaments found that women's caucuses can be as effective as gender equality committees in promoting gender equality in a parliament's work practices and outputs. That is why women parliamentarians usually opt to establish a caucus preferring to mainstream gender and women's issues in the work of all committees rather than confine them to a single specialized committee The WPC can establish strategic cooperation with parliamentary committees and other organs responsible for gender issues and gender equality, in order to exert greater influence on the legislative process in parliament.
The parliamentary committees, if and when, deals gender equality issues within its areas of responsibility can involve members of WPC. In the case of lack of women representation in committees, Caucus members    attend meetings of committees   as observers and provide advice on legislation from a gender perspective.  Hence the Caucus has to develop a strong degree of co-operation with all committees (especially with the Committee on women and children) and the Speaker of the parliament
Observation, Analysis and learning Lesson for Replication : The WPCs observe, analyze and learn from successful women's activities and policies in different countries through study visits to, and dialogue with, women politicians in such countries.  Lesson learnt from' successful gender related efforts in such countries help parliamentarians propose for replication of similar activity in own countries.
 (To be continued)

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