This article examines how three Bangladeshi women’s organisations mobilised individuals and negotiated with political parties, state bureaucracy and civil society allies to achieve gender justice goals. Findings highlight the importance of targeted engagement of supporters and allies (so as to mobilise individuals beyond the organisations’ own memberships), and of framing issues in a non-contentious way. The use of personal networks can open up new forums for advocacy, but relying on these networks is a risk to sustainability. Ineffective engagement with political parties can reduce orgnisations’ influence. Strategies for empowering women need to take account of the role played by such organisations and to support them more actively.
Women’s organisations are vehicles for women to collectively formulate and voice their demands for rights and empowerment to their community, society and the state. This study explores how three women’s organisations in Bangladesh – Women for Women, Naripokkho and Bangladesh Mahila Parishad – became effective advocates of women’s interests.
The organisations were successful in creating solidarity and support among their allies and other civil society groups. This was due to only ‘like-minded’ groups being approached and packaging the issues in an uncontroversial manner. Packaging, or ‘naming and framing’ issues in a non-contentious way, played a key role in building consensus among the organisations’ members and allies. Other strategies included:
- Creating reciprocal alliances with civil society organisations to build support and increase pressure on the state.
- Engaging strategically and substantively with the state. The organisations have been both pragmatic and opportunistic in their engagement, and the state would seem to be dealing with them in the same manner.
- Using personal networks. These networks helped to open up policy and organisational spaces in which to advocate. Personal networks were effective in mobilising insiders within the state structure and overcoming resistance within state bureaucracy.
- Engagement with political parties was generally kept to a minimum as the organisations found them unresponsive on the issue of gender equality.
These strategies by women’s organisations have made a significant contribution towards advancing the women’s empowerment agenda in Bangladesh. However, these approaches are not without risks:
- Alliance building can be risky given the tensions caused by the different powers and reach of the organisations involved.
- While there might have been costs to engaging with political parties, there are also costs to not engaging with them. The influencing potential of women’s organisations is limited and they do not have access to the mainstream political party agenda.
- Influencing government is difficult and time-consuming. Experience has shown that there is a big gap between policy and its implementation and that unless there is constant pressure, many of the legal or policy level gains remain on paper.
- Personal networks might reduce sustainability and effectiveness, especially if gains rely on personal links with individuals who then leave.