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Connecting People and Ideas for Integrated Development

Bangladesh Study Tour 2011

The USAID-funded Promoting Democratic Institutions and Practices Project (PRODIP), jointly implemented by SUNY/CID and The Asia Foundation sponsored a successful study tour in Washington, D.C., this spring. Nine women members of the Parliament of Bangladesh, one parliamentary staff officer and former Ambassador Nasim Firdaus, executive director of the Bangladesh Alliance for Women Leadership, participated in a 2- week workshop and study tour organized by the Centre for Development and Population Activities.

The variety and quality of the program – meetings with legislators, researchers, donors, diplomats and NGOs combined with on-going interactive training – made for a lively and engaging experience for the women. The delegation combined meetings with senior USAID and other administration officials, members of Congress, and leading women’s NGOs; training on leadership, the U.S. legislative system and advocacy; and visits to Senate Committee hearings and a session of the House of Representatives. Selected highlights of the May 23-June 3 trip include:

  • Tina Tchen of the White House Council on Women and Girls met with the group in the White House. Participants noted the critical importance of having high level political commitment, in this case the Office of the President, for advancing women’s issues within the administration. Participants also noted the importance of gender mainstreaming through different branches of government working together to advance women’s concerns rather than having women’s issues relegated to a single agency.
  • USAID Deputy Administrator, Ambassador Donald Steinberg, gave an overview of the three new senior level positions created within USAID to advance women and gender within the agency.  He spoke about how women are now “front and center” of USAID’s work and reiterated the agency’s commitment to promoting gender equality.  Nisha Biswal, Assistant Administrator for Asia, emphasized the importance of women working together across party lines and of developing alliances with civil society to help advance those policy issues. Carla Koppell, Senior Coordinator for the Office of Gender and Women’s Empowerment, Katie McDonald, Office Director, South and Central Asia, and Ananta Cook, Bangladesh Desk Officer, also participated in the meeting.
  • Anita Botti, deputy director of the Office of Global Women’s Initiatives at the State Department, discussed the themes of solidarity and the universal issues facing women when they enter the political arena, as well as their remarkable success stories. Issues of health, gender violence, sexual trafficking, education, and others were highlighted.
  • Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, spoke candidly about the benefits and challenges of advancing women’s issues within the framework of a Women’s Caucus.  She noted two keys to the Caucus’ success: that the Caucus focused only on the issues that both Republicans and Democrats could agree on; and that each taskforce set its own agenda. Congresswoman Lummis also spoke about some of the challenges she faced as a woman running in a “male dominated” political world.  Some of the participants were particularly surprised to hear how she was negatively depicted in campaign advertisements run by her opponents. This meeting also allowed the participants to see how a Congressional office was set up and staffed. 
  • Director of Global Programs at the Feminist Majority, Anushay Hossain, a Bangladeshi American, shared examples of her organization’s work with U.S. legislators to move women’s policy issues in Congress. Speaking in Bangla, she stressed the importance of Members developing alliances with civil society to support their policy work and to raise awareness of the implications of policies among women in Members’ constituencies, particularly among grassroots communities. She provided policy briefs on a range of topics, including women’s health and domestic violence.
  • Participants toured the Library of Congress and attended substantive presentations by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Law Library. Christopher Davis of CRS, an analyst on legislative process and procedures, focused on the importance of non-partisan research and discussed the types of issues that a quasi-independent agency can provide for legislators.
  • Former Congresswoman Connie Morella spoke to the women about the challenges she faced as a woman entering politics in the 1970s, the importance of women taking risks if they are committed to a political career, and the critical role of alliances, both with civil society and with other women, to promote women’s issues and to increase the numbers and influence of women in parliament. She highlighted the topic of Congressional oversight. Many participants mentioned that Bangladesh has some good laws regarding women, but noted that these laws are not enforced. Ms. Morella urged the participants to develop oversight mechanisms, especially for key issues relating to women.
  • At the Maryland State House, participants met with Jennie Forehand, the first woman representative in the Maryland House, and Representative Karen Montgomery of the Maryland State Women’s caucus. These discussions focused on the experiences of being a woman in a man’s legislature. Issues of family support and problems of addressing constituent needs were discussed in depth. The speakers also highlighted their success in establishing a bipartisan caucus and, in so doing, becoming sufficiently strong that they became key players on other, non-gender-based issues.

In addition, the delegation attended a dinner hosted by the Ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States. During dinner, the MPs had the opportunity to talk with the incoming Mission Director to Bangladesh, Richard Greene, about their personal experiences and to share with him updates on PRODIP and highlights of the study tour. NDI hosted a luncheon and discussion.

The program built upon the interviews and visits with frequent capacity building workshops. At the end of the two-week period, the meeting room was papered on four walls with the notes and key talking points from each session. Facilitators constantly referred back to lessons learned and common threads from earlier meetings.

Several themes recurred throughout the study tour:

  • Women politicians – whether in the United States or elsewhere around the world – have had to struggle and unite in order to have the impact that their numbers and experience merit. The participants were surprised to find that obstacles they thought were particular to their own country and circumstances were global and surmountable.
  • The importance of bipartisan action was stressed. As a corollary to this, there was a tremendous emphasis on coalition-building, focusing on the points of agreement and building trust.
  • The importance of connecting with constituents, developing alliances with CSOs, and opening up many avenues of communication between the legislators and the electorate were continually stressed.
  • Emphasis was placed on the importance of empirical data in policy formation, campaigning, and oversight functions. The participants were made aware of the tools that were available to them to collect data and resources to turn to for policy research and analysis.

The program concluded with the MPs preparing action plans for implementation upon their return.  These focused on two items: the building of a women’s caucus and planning for greater research capacity. PRODIP looks forward to supporting the MPs in implementing these action plan, by providing assistance through:

  • Connection with CSOs to help with research and data collection through small grants.
  • Direct assistance to a Women’s Caucus.
  • The appointment of young women as interns to encourage and train more young women to enter politics and to do gender-based research.
  • Facilitation of further trainings.

The MPs gave positive reviews of the experience, including one MP who mentioned that she enjoyed seeing spirited open hearings, in contrast to committee deliberations in Bangladesh which are closed to the public. The specialized training, tools and perspectives provided during the workshop and study tour will serve the MPs well upon their return to Bangladesh.

Posted: June 29, 2011