Leader of Bangladesh Praises Democracy

The Prime Minister of Bangladesh told a crowd of more than 200 people last night that her deep commitment to democracy has been the driving force of her 25 years of struggle against authoritarianism in Bangladesh.

"The justification of democracy is democracy itself and nothing can replace it," said Sheikh Hasina, the second female Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

In her speech at the ARCO Forum, Hasina--a long time activist turned politician--detailed her country's transition from dictatorship to democracy and her role in that change.

Before her appointment as Prime Minister in June of 1996, Hasina said she worked to end authoritarian rule despite the opposition of powerful--and violent--military juntas.

She told the audience that her actions had caused her to be arrested at least five times. She said she was shot at once.


"The duty was to protest dictatorships," she said. "Mine was the first voice of protest."

Despite her past successes, Hasina said she still faces challenges in the country--most recently, her conflict with political parties that have led violent protests against her policies.

She spent the last half of her speech detailing some of those policies--such as ensuring that Bangladesh citizens have the right to choose their leaders, increasing women's involvement in government, improving educational opportunities for children and working for peace in South Asia.

"Women are nearly a half of the total population of Bangladesh," she said. "This demographic feature has a special implication for democracy. Democracy cannot work leaving a half of the population out."

To increase political participation among women, Hasina said her administration has reserved 30 of the country's 330 seats in Parliament for female candidates. Women can also run for any of the remaining 300 seats.

Hasina said she has also worked to ensure that women have three of 11 seats in local governments--known as Union Parishads--that typically govern several villages. As with the Parliament, women can also serve in any of the other eight seats.

She said the 14,000 women who are now members of Union Parishads stand as evidence of the success of her efforts.

In addition, Hasina discussed how educational opportunities have improved since the removal of taxes on computer purchases. She also discussed a government proposal to create 12 new universities to teach science and technology.

Bangladesh's literacy rate has risen to 60 percent since she took office, she said, and the enrollment of girls in school has also increased considerably.

Hasina also detailed her efforts to maintain peace with and between India and Pakistan. As a result of these efforts, Hasina received the Mahatma Gandhi Award in 1998.

After her speech, Hasina fielded questions from the audience. Questions were asked in English and Hasina answered in Bangla, the national language of Bangladesh. Her translator then spoke to the audience in English.

After multiple questions from male audience members, an event coordinator asked for a question from a woman.

That question, the final one of the evening, concerned the Prime Minister's most formidable challenge as a female leader.

"Women have a handicap and a long way to go, but it can be easily achieved," she answered.

Her answer was met with an enthusiastic round of applause.

In her opening introduction of Hasina, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell praised her for disproving the stereotype that only men can rule in times of crisis and handle the difficult decisions.

Audience member Nehal S. Patel '02 said she was impressed by Hasina's speech. She said the Prime Minister's gender made "it all the more amazing that she's done what she has."

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