Women have been prime ministers in Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan, but their political representation in parliament is wanting. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, former prime minister and opposition party chief Khaleda Zia and parliament speaker Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury are women. But there are just five female ministers in a 52-member cabinet of ministers and 71 female lawmakers in a 350-member parliament. About 90 percent of Bangladesh's close to 150 million people are Muslims. Analysts say top leadership come from influential political families and have established leadership within the party through inherent family influence but that in most cases party plans and policies are shaped and executed by powerful male leaders. In Bangladesh, the patriarchal system dominates social, economic and religious norms, making it a challenge for women in politics to properly represent women and advance causes, says Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi Diocese, chairman of the bishops' Justice and Peace Commission. "In our country and all over South Asia, women have immense contribution in the development of societies but their contributions are often not recognized. They also lack in financial resources and muscle power, which dominates our democratic and political system," the bishop said. Moreover, the existing male-dominated power structure makes it difficult for women to properly participate in politics and restricts them from playing a significant role in the political empowerment of women, Bishop Rozario said. "The power structure lies largely within male political leaders, and women parliamentarians ... have little to do with policy- or decision-making. In most cases, women parliamentarians are rather decorative and we don't see their active role in overall policy making and development of women folks in the country," he said. Political parties and the election commission need to ensure and commit to at least 33 percent women participation in political parties to enhance political empowerment of women, he added. Bangladesh needs to commit to a political will and come out of the existing male-dominant political system of sidelining women from power to ensure their political empowerment, says Fauzia Karim, president of the women rights group Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association. "Sadly, top women leaders have done too little to improve the visibility of women in decision making from grassroots to top levels," said Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer. A Pakistani supporter carries a portrait of the late Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Garhi Dera Bakhsh in this 2012 file photo. Bhutto was twice Prime Minister of Pakistan (1988–1990; 1993–1996) and then leader of the opposition party in parliament. (Photo by AFP)
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In Pakistan, Sister Genevieve Ram Lal, national director of the Catholic Women Organization called for "equal representation" of women in parliament. "There are only 70 women in the 342-member national assembly house. Similarly the Senate consists of 104 members but there are only 19 women," she said. About 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslim. Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in 2007, was twice prime minister of Pakistan and then leader of the main opposition party in parliament. Nonetheless, "we still have to a long way to go despite the passage of the recent women's protection act currently being opposed by clerics," Sister Lal added. "The latest law can only prevent domestic violence after effective implementation. Women must be accommodated on equal basis in the society. This needs a serious change in attitude," the Catholic nun said. Wasim Wagha, a rights activist and member of Aurat Foundation, a women's right group, at least 33 percent representation is needed for women in parliament. "This will truly empower and motivate women at grassroots level." The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its March 6 statement said that under-representation of women in parliament in this day and age is a poor reflection on the promise of gender equality and parity in the country. "The government and political parties need to realize their responsibility in addressing that imbalance," it stated. The commission pointed out that women's presence in key parliamentary positions "falls well below the low percentage of their representation in the house." Among the parliamentary secretaries, there are three women and 17 men. Of the 32 standing committees of the National Assembly, not a single one is headed by a woman, it added.