Yesterday, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury was sworn in as Bangladesh’s first female Speaker of the Parliament. She was unanimously elected by the Parliament earlier Tuesday to fill the vacant seat.
Previously, Chaudhury, a member of the majority Awami League party, was the state minister for women and children affairs. In addition to advancing women’s equality through her “Women’s Development Policy” legislation, the new Speaker has declared ending violence against women a top priority. She told reporters, “We have enough laws. But there are [still] incidents of violence. It is not only the law that can change the situation. There is a need to change the mindset. Obstacles have always been there. But despite the obstacles, women have been able to come far and will go further.”
Her rise to Speaker and policies for advancing the rights of women have drawn opposition from conservative religious leaders. With Chaudhury as speaker, women hold three of the four most powerful political positions in the Bangladesh government (Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party) in addition to many other leadership positions. Chaudhury is also the first woman elected to Speaker who has come from one of 50 seats in Parliament specifically reserved for women.
Chaudhury’s oath comes a week after Bangladesh faced the tragedy of a building collapse in Dhaka that killed more than 400 people, mostly young women. The building housed garment factories, a bank, and a shopping center. An initial investigation found that the top four floors of the eight story building had been constructed illegally without permits. The factories also opened despite a crack discovered in the building the day before. Many of the factories in the building have connections to multiple Western retailers such as Walmart, Benetton and Cato Fashions, the Dutch C & A, British Prismark, and Spanish Mango, among others. Protests and strikes have erupted in Dhaka in response to the tragedy.
80% of the garment factory workforce in Bangladesh are women who are often responsible for providing for their families. Under grueling working conditions, workers in garment factories can make as little as $26 a month.