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This paper tries to unravel the research question: what were the structures, contexts and processes that helped develop women leadership in Bangladesh? The paper is based on content analysis method. The findings of the study unraveled that women leadership in a country grows through various socio-economic, political and legal processes, structures and contexts that allowed women playing leadership role. Liberal value system, democratic governance, advancement of education, science, information and communication technologies (ICTs), different socio-political movements, women’s organizations and networking, favorable legislation etc., can provide positive impetus for consolidating women’s leadership. In a real sense, economic factors played pivotal role for emerging women leadership in the grassroots based local government in Bangladesh. It was evident that working in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) huge number of women achieved economic emancipation and conscientization by involving themselves in various income-generating activities and developed enormous social capital at the grassroots level which buttressed women leadership in Bangladesh.

Keywords Content


Women leadership flourishes as an integral part of socio-economic development of a country. Bangladesh is no exception to this process. Ipso facto this paper strives to unravel the research question: what were the structural, contextual and procedural dimensions that helped develop women leadership in the local government of Bangladesh. In Bangladesh the women’s role in the lowest unit of local government i.e. Union Parishad (hereafter UP) is a very recent phenomenon, which began in 1997. In order to bring women leadership to the UP, myriad socio-economic-political and legal factors have contributed to the development of women leadership, which are analyzed in this paper. The paper is mainly based on content analysis method.


Theoretical and conceptual issues relating to women’s leadership is portrayed succinctly in this section. In this study women leadership refers to the elected women representatives of the local government institutions, namely the Union Parishad.

Leadership is a broad and multidimensional concept. Leadership is the ability to exercise power or exert influence in social collectiveness (Quadir: 1997). Leadership is described as “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers: 1997). According to Tannenbaum and Massarik (1986: 413), leadership is defined as “interpersonal influence exercised in situations and directed through a communication process toward the attainment of a specified goal or goals”. Walliullah (1974: 11) states that leadership refers to a process in which a relatively small number of individuals in a community behave in such a way that they affect (or effectively present) a significant change in the lives of a relatively large numbers of people.

Leadership is a complex interpersonal process of influencing human behaviour. According to Davis and Newstrom (1985), “leadership is the process of encouraging and helping others to work enthusiastically toward achieving objectives. It is the human factor that binds a group together and motivates it towards goal.” Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of goals in a given situation. Leadership is a crucial ingredient in organisational effectiveness. Social organizations are highly dynamic, versatile and adaptive to the multiplicity of changes. Leadership can be seen as an attempt to implement change.  The process of leadership is the use of non-coercive influence to direct, motivate, coordinate the activities of the members of the organized group towards accomplishment of group objectives. Leadership is the set of qualities of characteristics attributed to those that are perceived to successfully employ such influence (Gray and Starke: 1984). Leadership is something a person does, not something that he has. Leadership is something that emerges, that grows and that is achieved. It is a continuous process of influencing human behaviour. Leadership refers to the quality, capacity, and the art to conquer, exercise, and maintain the leader’s function1. It aims at defining the capacity to lead people or organizations to the achievement of objectives. Referring to behaviors that may characterize the person that may play the role of “leader,” leadership may hence be defined as “the capacity of an individual to influence, motivate, and make others capable of contributing to the efficiency and success of organizations they belong to.” Leadership can be both ascription and achievement oriented.

In countries where socio-economic institutions are weak and malfunctioning, the local government can help establish democracy and development at the grassroots level. In these developing countries, women have a subordinate role in the family, society and state and therefore women's participation and development are interlinked with various socio-economic, cultural and political factors and dimensions of development. Among various strategies, empowering women through the political process is one of the best strategies for women’s development. Women’s entry into local government institutions (LGIs) can help them play a role in the country's decision-making process that in turn can ensure their social, economic, cultural, and political rights and thus participation of women in the LGIs has direct bearing on women’s life. In the structure of LGIs women leaders can initiate, usher, and implement socio-economic change and development addressing the needs and interests of the rural women.


This section will provide an overview of how the social, economic and political structures and systems have contributed to the development of women and have helped them take leadership roles. Instead of an automatic process, all over the world, irrespective of country specifications—developed and developing—women leadership has grown everywhere with the positive impetus and dynamic process of the socio-cultural development of the country. A lot of factors, structures and systems affect the process, nature, extent and dynamics of women's participation in public life in Bangladesh. There are psychological, attitudinal, social, political, cultural, economic, religious, organizational and institutional factors that influence the process of political participation of women. The development of women leadership is intricately interrelated and conditioned with and by the prevailing social, cultural, economic and political context of a country. Papanek (1975: 220-222) disclosed that there are two different avenues for women's development. The first method of development is to give priority to changing the situation of women by accepting existing social, economic and political structures. To develop women the second alternative necessitates a general transformation regarding the existing socio-economic structures. According to Papanek (1975: 220-222) the second case is relevant to third world countries.

In fact the structures, systems, and contexts responsible for the increased political participation of women at the local level are myriad. According to Kaushik (1996: 40-41), in understanding the aspects of political participation of women factors such as the ideology of the state, the interrelationship among the components of its structure, i.e. class, caste, gender social, political, and economic context, are crucial. Rai (1995: 115) views that women's access to public life can be promoted through family background, social and political movements, and policy legislations etc. To provide a systematic analysis of the structures, process, and contexts of women’s leadership, these contexts have been divided into socio-cultural, economic, political and legal contexts, which have been discussed below.


The socio-cultural contexts are quite important for understanding the political participation of women. In countries where culture and society are heavily textured by patriarchal values, women may usually lack access to the resources in the family and state, i.e. education, ownership and employment that limit their opportunities to enter avenues leading to the political arena (Chowdhury: 1994a). Lehary and Ahmed (2001: 8) also view that women are unequal due to their dependent socio-economic status, lower education, less mobility and above all due to the social, cultural, and religious customs. In the cultural realm women are subjugated by men, which is well entrenched or entrapped in the habits, beliefs, customs, feelings, thinking, art, morals, laws, etc. of Bangladesh society (Khanam, Rashida & Khan 1996: 22). Despite that women were able gain access to public office owing to overall improvement in the socio-economic and political contexts and structures of the society, which have been described beneath briefly.


One of the greatest constraints to the participation of women in politics in Bangladesh is the misinterpretation of religious principles and “fatwahs2 by the so-called religious leaders because most of those leaders are ignorant about the principles of Islam (Bhuiyan, 2001:10). The traditional attitude of the male-dominated society and the patriarchal social norms hinders women’s access to leadership positions on the grounds that Islam does not recognize leadership by women (Bhuiyan, 2001:11). Cultural beliefs create psychological and emotional barriers for women to run for political office (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000: 25) but Chaney (1973) views that women in developing countries may rise to political leadership positions through the changes that undermine traditions. Cultural liberalization refers to the liberal norms, attitudes, beliefs and culture that help with the emergence of women’s leadership. The fundamental reason behind developing women’s leadership lies with the fact that women in Bangladesh are moderate, liberal minded and quickly adaptive. In reality, Bangladeshi women are not fundamentalist but liberal in thinking, and such liberalism has helped women’s leadership to grow in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi women are not as conservative as the so-called progressive people have tried to establish about the Muslim women. Bangladesh society is not as patriarchal as it is deemed. Khanam et al. (1996: 24) view that for religious reasons, women in Muslim states are strictly excluded from politics, but in Bangladesh religion always helps people to continue their life, and religion never create problems. In my opinion Bangladeshi Muslims have their religious spirit in mind or in their heart but their behavior is modest and moderate. Such moderate or liberal mental make- up of most of the people helped women emerging as leaders.


Women’s education and employment can buttress women’s empowerment. In recent days due to the enormous growth of education and employment opportunities, massive development of communication networks and civic amenities etc. many of the socio-cultural problems of women have substantively been reduced and such huge modernization of the society may have a positive impact on women's mobility and empowerment. Any attempt to promote women's empowered role has to combine multiple strategies and hence women need to get access and gain an entry into the functioning of the state and share the control over the apparatus of the state. To promote equality and justice, positive changes, and to remove the bottlenecks of women's political participation, necessary policy changes and restructuring of the culture, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and values are essential.Attaining political power by women leaders largely occurs outside politics (Randall: 1987; Chafetz: 1991). One important entry point for women’s entry into public life is education. Education makes women knowledgeable, skilled, and self-confident in their participation in the ongoing development process of the country (Villaluz: 2000). Education enables women become more politically aware, more assertive and active in political discussions and participation (Wade and Seo, 1996: 44). Education is certainly one of the formidable factors that contribute to the transformation of politics and government and the modification of traditional restrictive attitudes and the preparedness of women to take public roles depend on education to a large extent (Newland, 1975: 33). Education is crucial for improving the quality of women’s citizenship and leadership (Knight: 2004). It is encouraging that significant progress in the area of women’s education has been made in Bangladesh in recent years. In countries where women have access to educational opportunities, women will be more likely to participate in politics. Basic education may be an important resource because it bestows political knowledge that may be essential for participation in the political realm (Verba, Burns, & Schlozman: 1997). Subrahmanyam (2002: 32) points out that “the spread of education, the influence of the electronic media, and the improvement in income level, exposure, knowledge, and awareness among the ruralities have created an impact in the value system, attitudes, perceptions, expectations and aspirations of the rural disadvantaged sections in recent years.” As a matter of fact, women have now begun to realize that political empowerment holds the key for their social and economic betterment.

Scholars view that the first and foremost constraint on women's participation in the political process is the patriarchal social system (Khanam et al. 1996:21). Cantor and Bernay (1992, quoted in Genovese, 1993:217) also point out that escaping the bondage of the patrimonial problem is an essential ingredient to creating a just and equal society that helps liberate both men and women. It is deemed that the more women will come to politics, the more easily this problem will be removed. Therefore, Chowdhury (1994b: 54) finds it important that women that are active in politics and public life need to be aware of those problems for removing the barriers to their equality and accelerating women's advancement.

In essence, modernization, expansion of education and employment opportunity have changed women’s age-old cultural and mental make-up in the family, society and community, and has facilitated the growth of liberal cultural norms, attitude, beliefs and value system, which helped women come out from the four walls of kitchen room to the outside world.


The advancement of science and technology has resulted in new production processes, occupations, and skills, which have led to an increased demand for women’s labour. Consequently, changes in social roles, customs, attitudes and laws have emerged for both men and women. The progressive trends of the society, ICTs, organized economic development and the mobilization of poor women have helped women to raise their social position, which resulted in women’s empowerment in Bangladesh. All of these factors in turn have facilitated the social transformation of women through breaking the traditional structures of power and value systems (Kaushik, 1993:12 & 1996:38-45 and Rajeswari, 1996:131).

Following the footsteps of the Pakistan government Bangladesh government have made remarkable success in the sphere of population control utilizing innovative lessons and experiences developed by the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development(BARD) in the early sixties(Khan and Khan, 1975:31-32; Khan, 1972:48-49; Curlin, Chen, and Hussain, 1975). In a true sense, family planning workers at the grassroots level were the first and foremost change agents in the traditional rural society of Bangladesh. Due to widespread publicity of the family planning program through using radio, television, newspapers etc., rural women came to know how to get rid of anxiety from being pregnant every year due to availability of improved methods of family planning, various products and methods of contraceptives. Thus the health and family planning program helped women secure a social role that relieved them from the familial, reproductive, and childbearing role and enabled them invest part of their time and energies in activities outside their homes. The adoption for birth control has helped remove inertia and has brought about a radical change in the cultural, behavioral and thinking pattern of women, which has given impetus to the development of women’s leadership in rural society. The cataclysmic development of science and ICTs revolution has played a positive role in the development of women.


In the political domain women leadership was developed in Bangladesh undergoing the following processes and systems:


The development of women’s leadership calls for a fundamental requirement for democratic governance as evidence shows that woman leaders are always elected through “regular” channels (Paxton and Hein: 2006), which implies women leadership can flourish in democratic regime only, not in military regime. However evidence shows that female leaders are more successful in a democratic system. Women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy and has positive impacts on communities, legislatures, political parties and citizen’s lives (Wollack: 2010). In fact, democratic governance helps women’s organizations and networks to uphold women’s demands and interests by advocating and lobbying for bringing salutary policy changes through adopting myriad democratic movements. Thus democratic governance provides the necessary conditions for strengthening women’s political development and participation.


Leadership develops through political movements, where women can uphold their voices/demands and rights such as rights for education, jobs, employment, economic emancipation, dowry-free marriage, the right to safety, security and production etc.  The greater the scope of demands created for women, the more prospects there will be for women’s leadership in Bangladesh. Women leaders evolve through becoming members of collective associations. Being a part of a collective force and drawing strength from others and giving support to the group activities are very important for developing women’s leadership. Through group activities women can develop mutual and symbiotic relationships among the members of the group and women can do their work using collective intelligence and strength. Sharma (1998: 42) views that “worldwide women's collective action and mobilization has made a significant contribution in enlarging the definition of politics, however, they remain largely excluded from formal politics.” Sharma (1992) also elaborates that “despite difference in perspectives, approaches and methodologies there seems to be a general agreement both within the women's movement and the government that grassroots organizations are vital instrument in providing women with collective strength, bargaining capacity and collective articulation of their interests.” The same was the case of participation of women in the grassroots LGIs in Bangladesh, which provided a platform for the collectivization of women.


The emergence of women’s leadership in Bangladesh begins with the British colonial era further flourished through the Pakistan and Bangladesh period. The seed of women’s leadership in this subcontinent was germinated through the farmers’ movement, which was popularly known as the “tebhaga movement.”3 This movement started simultaneous in both parts East and West Bengal that now constituted Bangladesh and West Bengal before the partition of undivided India. A huge number of women took part in this movement, which helped to fortify women’s leadership in both the areas. In the wake of the “tebhaga movement” various farmers’ movements emerged which in turn were transformed into political movements where women's participation was quite visible. During the British period some prominent women leaders such as Priti Lata Sen and Ashalata Devi, who were actively involved in the patriotic movement, motivated women to involve in the political movement. Women’s movements during the Pakistan and post-independence period had a socialist orientations, which gradually transformed into democratic movements that demanded gender equality, elimination of violence, torture, and fundamentalist’s activities against women in society; which helped crystallize women’s issues and solidarity (Guhathakurata, Begum & Ahmed, 1997). Again, during the Pakistan period some women from elite families organized in the “mahila samity or parishad (Women’s Forum),” which encouraged some women to participate in social works. Various socio-political movements such as the language movement (1952), mass-upsurge (1969) and the liberation movements of Bangladesh (1971), also helped flourish women leadership in Bangladesh.


Women’s empowerment thrives through collective movement everywhere. All over the world women’s collectivization initially takes place through civil society movements. The development of women’s leadership to an extent was an outcome of systematic, well-ordered, incremental movements by the civil society group, most of which came from outside the government. In the wake of all such movements against social ills and problems causing the underdevelopment of women, women's organizations demanded reservation for women in the administration and political power structure. These movements influenced the government to take steps to include women in local governments and the national parliament.


The role of women’s organizations is very important for developing women’s leadership. According to Caplan and Bujra (1979), there is evidence that women’s organizations are the most effective agents for bringing change in women's behaviour. Women and women’s organizations have played a major role in changing the laws or the interpretation of laws that have defined women’s legal status (Newland, 1975: 34). There are numerous women’s organizations that are playing a crucial role in building awareness among the women in Bangladesh. These organizations helped increase women’s social mobilization, raising their social status and increasing their political consciousness (Khan, Rahman, Islam, & Islam 1981: 7). Besides Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Grameen Bank, Proshikha, Gono Sahajjya Sangstha, Association of Social Advancement (ASA), etc., there are some notable women’s organizations such as Women for Women, Bangladesh Kendra, Naripokkho, Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha, Nari Pakkha, Ubining, Nijera Kori, Sptogram, Mahila Samity, Mahila Parishad, Ain o Salish Kendra etc. are working on developing a women's agenda (Rahman and Rahim, 2001: 128; Jahan: 1995, 1991). Apart from mobilizing women around specific issues, these organizations are expanding the scope of the women's agenda to include many other developmental issues, such as population control, women's health issues, legal reforms, and enhancing the participation of women in the political process and establishing links with NGOs in order to raise the consciousness of women at the grassroots level (Jahan, 1995; 1991).


During recent times through gaining economic strength, women have made a good footing that has helped the process of women’s leadership in Bangladesh. The pivotal issue which have helped the emergence of women’s leadership in Bangladesh have been economic.

Development of NGOs contributed to Economic Emancipation of Women

In developing women’s cause and interest, NGOs have played the cardinal role. To overcome the boundless poverty, women from poor families have come out from their home. In Bangladesh governments have failed to reach some of the remotest areas of rural Bangladesh, but while working at the field level, NGOs have developed huge social capital for women and brought about a remarkable change in the consciousness level of the women in the rural society. In every country economic development occurs in a certain process. As NGOs have involved women in that process, therefore, the topmost role played in the development of women leadership at the grass root should be given to NGOs.     

At present a lot of NGOs, namely BRAC, Proshika, Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Services(RDRS), Gano Sahajjo Sangstha (GSS), World Vision, KARITAS, Concern, CARE, DANIDA, USAID, Grameen Bank, Bureau Bangladesh, ASA etc., have been providing innumerable training programs in various income-generating activities in different areas, i.e. fisheries, livestock, poultry, handicraft, healthcare and sanitation, nutrition, agro forestry, formal and informal education and credit programs, which have helped rural women to obtain self-employment that have contributed to women’s consciousness and socio-economic emancipation (Meher: 2000). Both economic and social returns from women’s involvement in NGOs activities were high and women’s increased income in turn helped unleash women’s potentials and have brought about a radical change in their outlook, consciousness, and cultural level.

In the NGOs lots of poor women have received a chance to become involved in various income generating activities through micro-credit, development programs, skill training, capacity building programs, etc., which have helped them increase their income, knowledge and education, remove their vulnerability, instill a sense of confidence and courage to fight with social ills, and thus develop the mobility of poor women of remotest rural areas—which in fact contributed immensely to the evolving women’s leadership in Bangladesh. The NGO revolution has contributed immensely to the growth of women’s leadership in Bangladesh, which received further momentum by the donor agencies, that helped build links with women's organizations and NGOs through networking, information building, consultation, conferences, and workshops in order to promote gender issues within the political agenda (Sikoska and Kardam, 2001).


Women’s leadership in Bangladesh has received positive impetus from legal implications of both global and national contexts which are described below.


The issue of women's political participation in Bangladesh has been developed within the broader ambit of global perspective. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 to till date all the international conferences on women stressed women’s empowerment (Hossain, 1999: 178). Following those global legislations the international aid agencies have tried to improve the condition of women through advocating policies, programs, strategies and conditions favoring the cause of women’s development.

International Women’s Movement/Organizations Help Women’s Leadership

International women’s organizations and movements have also contributed to growing women’s leadership in most of the countries of the world and Bangladesh is no exception to this. International organizations have advised developing countries governments to adopt gender quotas in their countries (Childs and Krook, 2005; Krook, 2004; Towns, 2004). In some countries international bodies have helped with the capacity development of women, which indirectly has promoted women’s leadership. The UN, the International Labour Organization (ILO), The World Bank, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and lots of International NGOs (INGOs) have provided money, personnel, training, employment and skills development, etc., which have contributed to empowering women throughout the world (UNDP, 2000: 97). Paxton & Hein (2006) found that network among the Women’s International NGOs (WINGOs) and UN activities has had a powerful impact on women’s parliamentary representations over time.


With the prescription and persuasions from the donor agencies, most national governments have devised some mechanisms for addressing policy issues relating to women’s empowerment and development (Staudt: 1998; Stetson: 1995; Weldon: 2002b), which include the formation of a national women’s agency, a women’s commission, or a women ministry- those machineries are promoting women’s interests, coordinating and consolidating the women’s related policies and programs (Stetson: 1995; Stetson and Mazur: 1995; Weldon: 2002a). In congruence with the legislations sets by international treaties/conventions, the Bangladesh governments have made formal commitments to women’s political participation through the reservation of seats in the national parliament and LGIs (Chowdhury, 1994b: 40-42; Chowdhury et al., 1994: 25; Khanam et al., 1996: 92). To strengthen women’s role and status in the Bangladesh society governments have undertaken various interventions such as implementing projects on non-formal education, adult education, food for education, free primary education, scholarships for girl students; the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s and Children's Affairs, the creation of focal points for women in all Ministries, Divisions, and Agencies and making the WID a strong component of the development projects etc. - all such measures have contributed positively to the development of women’s leadership in the Bangladesh context.


Based on the content analysis method, this paper seeks to answer the research question thatwhat were the structures, contexts and processes that helped develop women leadership in Bangladesh?. Different social, economic, political and legal contexts, structures and processes have helped women playing their leadership role in Bangladesh.It was found that liberal socio-cultural values and systems have helped to increase women’s leadership role in society. In Bangladesh health and family planning workers at the grassroots have helped break inertia to bring women outside the four-wall of domestic life. The advancement of education, science, ICTs and media revolution, employment opportunities have helped with the process of the development of women. Women leadership received positive impulse from various political movements, collectivization process in women’s organization and network, democratic governance and favourable legislations from the government. Among various structural and contextual dimensions, systems and process, the economic context has played pivotal role in developing women leadership in Bangladesh. Due to NGO intervention in the remotest rural areas, lots of poor women have developed their socio-economic and managerial capacity by involving them in various income generating activities (IGAs) and skill training opportunities that have helped develop enormous social capital among women, which largely contributed to flourish grassroots-level women’s leadership in Bangladesh.



1. From http://www.wikipedia.org.

2. Fatwahs are the verdicts or opinions given by the local mullahs which have a considerable influence in the rural society of Bangladesh.

3. The Tebhaga movement was a militant campaign initiated in West Bengal by the Kisan Sabha (Peasants front of Communist Party of India) in 1946. At that time share-cropping peasants (essentially, tenants) had to give half of their harvest to the owners of the land. The demand of the Tebhaga (sharing by thirds) movement was to reduce the share given to landlords to one third. In many areas the agitations turned violent, and landlords fled the villages leaving parts of the countryside in the hands of the Kisan Sabha. This movement equally came into being in Bangladesh as part of that movement started in West Bengal as at that time Bangladesh was part of undivided India.



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