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The 9th Parliamentary Elections Observations of NFOWD

National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD), the national disability think tank, is the apex federating body of NGOs working in the Disability field in Bangladesh. Established in 1991, it is registered as the only National Network of NGOs with the Government of Bangladesh.

NFOWD is an executive member on the Boards of the Jatiyo Protibondhi Unnayan Foundation (JPUF) and the National Social Welfare Council (NSWC). It is also a member of the National Coordination Committee and the National Executive Committee on Disability (constituted under the Disability Welfare Act 2001). At the international level, NFOWD is the current chair of the Asia Pacific Disability Forum. Since 2005, NFOWD has accreditation of the UN Economic & Social Commission (ECOSOC) and now is an elected board member of the Global Partnership for Disability & Development (GPDD) and the International Disability Alliance on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (IDA-CRPD) Forum. It is also member of the International Council for Education of persons with Visual Impairments (ICEVI) and the South Asian Network on Community Based Rehabilitation.

Our vision is an inclusive, barrier free and rights based society, where all persons with disabilities are mainstreamed, and can exercise & access their rights & privileges. Since voting is an inherent right of every adult citizen of our country, NFOWD has been working for many years to ensure that all persons with disabilities above 18 years can exercise their right to vote, with full freedom of choice, maintaining confidentiality, and ensuring dignity.

As part of its advocacy initiatives in this regard, a team from NFOWD met with the Chief Election Commissioner and the two Election Commissioners in April 2007 with an eight-point charter, outlining specific measures that the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) should adopt to ensure registration of all adult voters with disabilities, and facilitate smooth vote casting by such voters in elections. Over the next few months, NFOWD worked closely with the BEC, supported by its member organizations across the country, to ensure that persons with disabilities are registered in the National ID Card process.

Once the schedules of the 9th National Parliamentary Elections were declared, NFOWD expressed its keen interest to closely monitor and observe the elections, especially looking at how effectively persons with disabilities could cast their votes. While NFOWD members would be observing the elections across the country, NFOWD as an organization was assigned by the BEC to observe the elections in two constituencies in Dhaka city - with center-based observers in Dhaka-13 and a mobile observer team in Dhaka-11.

NFOWD commissioned observers in 80 centers across the Dhaka-13 Constituency from representatives of its member organizations, including persons with disabilities.

The four-member mobile team comprised of the President, the former Senior Vice President, the Executive Member of Dhaka Division and the Director of NFOWD visited 66 polling centers and over 250 booths in the Dhaka-11 Constituency. At the centers, the team talked to Presiding Officers, Assistant Presiding Officers, Polling Officers, Polling Agents, Voters, on-duty law enforcement officials & personnel, media representatives, Observers from other teams etc. to assess the polling environment, in addition to making their own observations. In at least 22 centers, the team also came across at least 3 candidates vying for the parliamentary seat. The Mobile Team also made halts on the roads between the centers, talking to voters and law-enforcement officials. The observations of NFOWD are as follows:

Polling Center Infrastructure

Most of the polling centers in the Dhaka-11 Constituency that the NFOWD visited were multi-storied buildings, and very few had polling booths on the ground floor. In many cases, the same building had more than one centers on different floors of the same building. Some were even on the 4th floor. In many cases, voters for these different centers had to use the same congested staircases to go up to their respective centers and booths to cast their votes, and use the same to leave after casting their votes. However, the teams did not find any ramps in any of the buildings, even where the polling centers were located on the ground floor. In some cases, to ensure that voters maintain disciplined queues, fences were erected with bamboos, which added to the inaccessibility. This made it extremely difficult for voters with physical disabilities and/or elderly voters to access their polling booths with ease.

Orientation/Information of Presiding Officers regarding Vote by Persons with disabilities

The Team had not actually expected that the Presiding Officers would have a thorough understanding of Disability Issues and all the additional needs of persons with different types of disabilities. But it was indeed expected that, in the absence of ramps (or other accessibility features) in the polling centers, the respective Presiding Officers would have at least some information on assuring that persons with disabilities would be able to cast their votes maintaining confidentiality and dignity, since the Election Commission had repeatedly assured us earlier that all such issues were included in their instruction manual and training of election conduction officials.

In 100% centers, the Presiding Officers mentioned that voters with all types of visible disabilities, elderly people, women with advanced pregnancies, women with very young children and those who are visibly ill were being given priorities. Such people did not have to even stand in long queues. The team also saw instances where these measures were being practiced.

In 86% centers, the Presiding Officers knew how to assist voters with severe visual impairments cast their votes maintaining confidentiality by the help of personal assistants. In only 36% of the centers, the Presiding Officers were found to be fairly aware of how to ensure voting by persons with severe physical disabilities (such as wheelchair users). However, almost all of them informed us that this was not mentioned during their training, but they worked it out from reading the guidelines provided by the Election Commission.

Of the remaining 42 (or 64%) Centers, upon being suggested by the Team, 38 Presiding Officers were keen to take the election materials (voter lists, ballot papers and seal etc.) downstairs to a suitable place, to ensure identity of the voter and confidentiality of the polling by the concerned wheelchair user.

6% of the Presiding Officers had absolutely no intention of ensuring such a process, citing that, election materials were not allowed to be removed from any room under any circumstances. When the team mentioned to these Presiding Officers that there were such instances in other Polling Centers where concerned Presiding Officers were ensuring voters in wheelchairs did not have to return home without casting their votes, and took personal initiatives to take the election materials downstairs to ease the situation, these 4 Presiding Officers mentioned that such information was not shared in their training. Either the voters would need to be carried upstairs, or they would need to return home without casting their votes. In most cases, upon the visit of the Team, the concerned Presiding Officer was seen to send such specific information downstairs to the on-duty security personnel such that information of the presence of wheelchair users or elderly voters is sent to him, so that he could arrange accordingly. In two cases, the Presiding Officer came down himself to convey such information to the on-duty security personnel.

Orientation/Information of other election related Officials regarding Vote by Persons with disabilities

The Team found that the Assistant Presiding Officers and Polling Officers had almost limited understanding of how to conduct polling of persons with disabilities. However, in almost all cases they mentioned that they would depend on the decision provided by the Presiding Officer.

Orientation/Information of on-duty security personnel regarding Vote by Persons with disabilities:

At all the Polling Centers, the Team found fairly adequate on-duty security personnel from Bangladesh Police and Ansar teams at the Polling Centers, to maintain discipline and assist the election officials in smooth conduction of polling.

In almost all centers the concerned security personnel were found to be aware that voters with special needs (persons with disabilities, elderly voters, women in advanced pregnancy, visibly ill people, women with very young children etc.) needed preference, and so were not asked to stand in long queues. In some cases, the security personnel were found to be assisting such voters up the stairs to centers on higher floors.

In 6% centers, security personnel mentioned that they had sent information to the concerned Presiding Officer and the Officer came down to ensure that disabled & elderly voters could cast votes.

However, in 76% of the centers, the security personnel mentioned that they were yet to receive any such instruction from the Presiding Officers concerned.

Turnout of Voters with Disabilities

The Team had observed a massive turnout and huge enthusiasm amongst the voters at or in front of the Polling Centers. The presence of young voters in large numbers was quite obvious. The overall environment had a festive look in spite of rather long queues in front of almost all centers.

However, the Team was rather disappointed at the turnout of voters with disabilities, as very few were seen at the centers, in the queues, or on the streets.

The Team met and interviewed only 18 voters with disabilities. Amongst them, 11 were with physical disabilities (including 3 wheelchair users, 3 persons using two crutches, 2 persons using weight-supporting sticks), 4 with visual disabilities, 2 with hearing/speech disabilities and 1 with intellectual disability (being accompanied by his father).

Those with visual & intellectual disabilities mentioned that they had received adequate support at the polling centers/booths from the concerned officials & agents in casting their votes maintaining confidentiality. For one wheelchair user, since the booth was on the ground floor, there was not much problem. For another, the Presiding Officer came downstairs, upon being informed by his assistant, as his booth was on the 2nd floor. For the other, he was lifted up to the 2nd floor by the help of his assistant, security personnel, and young enthusiastic fellow voters.

It was almost unbearable for the crutch and stick users climbing up the congested stairs to higher floors, even though they were given preference over the non-disabled voters. The Team encountered one elderly crutch user on the 2nd floor of the Textile Engineering College at Tejgaon, which was so crowded that the Team members themselves found it extremely difficult penetrating the crowd of voters, who were confused about their respective centers and booths. It took this voter over an hour climbing up the stairs, and reaching his booth.

At this same building, the Team met a Hearing & Speech impaired voter on the 3rd floor, who was still looking for his center and booth for over an hour. The on-duty police personnel only came forward to help him, when we asked them to guide this voter through the crowd to his booth. Due to his inability to verbally communicate (despite carrying and showing his national ID card, and voter number found from one of the agents outside the center premises), he could not attract attention from the security personnel earlier.

During the visit to the different centers, while talking to the concerned Presiding Officers, Assistant Presiding Officers, Polling Officers, Polling Agents, security personnel and voters in general, the Team understood that a total of only 49 voters with disabilities (21 persons with physical disabilities including 4 wheelchair users, 17 persons with visual disabilities, 7 with hearing & speech disabilities and 4 with intellectual disabilities) had cast their votes. Most of them were from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Overall Observations, Comments & Recommendations

The 9th Parliamentary Elections has seen a record high turnout of voters, where the voters flocked to the polling centers in a highly disciplined manner, and in a festive mood from very early in the morning till end of polling in the late afternoon. The overall environment was extremely congenial for voters to exercise their right to vote. The Team did not notice any apparent coercion from any political parties and/or their representatives to influence the voters. The Election Officials maintained strict neutrality & impartiality. The law enforcement agencies maintained discipline. There was however widespread confusion regarding National ID Card and Voter ID number amongst voters in general, and several voters had to return home without casting votes, despite standing in long queues for hours due to such confusion.

The confusion regarding National ID card and Voter ID Number must be resolved before the upcoming Local Government elections & Parliamentary By-elections.

During the visits, not a single polling center was found to be made accessible for persons with physical disabilities. No ramps, even temporary, where seen in any of the centers. Voters with physical disabilities may have their polling centers/booths on higher floors, especially where the same building has multiple polling centers on different floors, so in cases of multistoried buildings being used as polling centers, at least one room needs to be allocated for maintaining confidentiality of polling on the ground floor.

In some cases, especially where Centers had an open field, in order to ensure that voters maintain disciplined queues, fences were erected with bamboos, which added to the inaccessibility. From the enthusiasm and the respect for law and order that was evident amongst the voters in general, the Team felt that such fencing was not actually required. Therefore, it is wise not to erect bamboo fencing that could add to the inaccessibility of voters.

Some centers were so crowded that it became almost impossible for voters to climb up congested floors. The Hossain Ali High School (at East Nakhalpara, Tejgaon) for example was at the end of a narrow road, with five centers (22 booths) on three floors, with a combined 12,700 voters using only one narrow staircase to access and also leave the centers. The road is so narrow that it was only possible to form one queue for the voters of the five centers. At about 12:30 PM the queue had reached a length of over a kilometer. The 7,200 women voters for the same locality had to queue up for an even more congested Haji Moron Ali Madrasah nearby, with 4 centers located on 5 floors, with an even narrower staircase. In such cases, it is almost impossible for physically disabled, visually disabled, elderly, pregnant or physically ill voters to cast their votes, even if they are prioritized over the others, as walking up and down such heights in such crowded conditions is difficult.

The Election Commission should identify more locations and institutions such that voters do not have to crowd up at one location.

Instructions on specific needs of persons with physical disabilities had been provided in the training manual for the Presiding Officers, but in most cases were not actually discussed at their one-day training. Some of the officials, who read the manual in detail found the solutions, while others depended on what they had learnt during the training only. So, whether or not a Presiding Officer would take the election materials downstairs to assist a voter with physical disability, depended on the wish or whim of the concerned official. While some helped the disabled voter, other presiding officers did not. In one particular center (Tejgaon Women๏ฟฝs College), the Polling Officers and Polling Agents specifically mentioned that four physically disabled women voters had to go home without casting their votes as they were told to cast their votes only in their allocated booths on the 3rd floor, but they did not want to be physically lifted by male security personnel. Therefore, specific instructions for supporting voters with disabilities must be discussed during the training of election officials.

The Team had no opportunity to discuss with any of the Judicial Magistrates on duty. The Team had visited some centers immediately following the visit of such high officials, but even in those centers, the plight of many voters with disabilities had not been resolved. It is therefore being suggested that even the high official observers should be informed about the additional plight of disabled voters, such that they can instruct the center-based officials accordingly.

The security personnel are fairly sensitive to persons with disabilities. But without any instruction from the concerned election officials, they did their best to volunteer in physically lifting and carrying the voters with severe physical disabilities to higher floors. They had no information that, if the Presiding Officer was informed of the presence of such a voter, the Officer would arrange polling on the ground floor. Most people with physical disabilities do not wish to be lifted out of their wheelchairs; women do not wish to be physically carried up the stairs by unknown male persons either. It is therefore imperative that security personnel are instructed to inform the Presiding Officer on the presence of the severely physically disabled voters, such that the concerned Officer can act accordingly.

In most cases, where visually impaired women voters were being accompanied by male sighted guides (and vice versa), the voters faced challenges from the security personnel at the entrance of the Centers. It is only natural that a woman with visual impairment could be accompanied by her husband, son or brother in the absence of a woman sighted guide. But the lack of such instructions to the security enforcers prevented the guides in many cases, thereby the voter felt insecure and confused in unknown surroundings. In a few cases, where senior police officials were at the Center gate, they permitted such sighted guides of opposite sex with voters, but this was rare. In some cases, a neighbor (of the same sex) came forward to volunteer as a guide. Without any exceptions, these voters were given preference over the non-disabled voters, and once they reached the polling booth, they also were given special needs support by the election officials. But where the actual guide needed to be substituted by a fresh volunteer, even though the election officials ensured that the volunteer guide was marking the candidate of choice of the voter correctly, this resulted in a violation of confidentiality. Therefore, clear & specific instructions need to be provided to the law enforces to allow entry of voters with visual impairments with sighted guides of their own choice, even where the guides are of the opposite sex.

One voter, who had no hands below wrist joints complained about feeling humiliated when the polling officers jokingly suggested publicly of putting the ink mark on his forehead (as he had no fingers). While this amused the other voters waiting their turn at the booth, and the polling agents, he felt that his disability, made worse by poverty gave them this opportunity to humiliate him. This is a serious violation of a person๏ฟฝs dignity & human rights. Therefore, it is essential that election officials are clearly instructed about the issues concerning dignity of voters with disabilities.

Where there was a record-breaking turnout of voters in this election, the absence or very poor turnout by voters with disabilities is extremely unfortunate, but thought-provoking. The Election Commission had definitely done a very laudable job in registering voters with disabilities in large numbers. That even voters with severe disabilities from even very low income groups had come out to cast their votes carrying the National ID cards are enough testament to that. Talking to some of the voters with disabilities, the Team learnt that, in many cases, the non-disabled family members were not very encouraging or enthusiastic about bringing the disabled voters to the centers. They thought about the inaccessibility and/or impediments, which might increase the humiliation and disappointment, if they could not finally be able to cast their vote. Lack of transportation was a major cause also. At the Nazrul Shikkhyaloy at Moghbazar, the Team came across an affluent very elderly voter accompanied by his expatriate son. Upon receiving a very cordial support from the concerned Presiding Officer, who climbed down from the 2nd floor with election materials to ensure casting, the son mentioned his intention to return with his ailing mother to ensure she could cast her vote too. However, he lamented that, prior to the elections, all the print and electronic media channels had been broadcasting several TV and Radio spots prepared and commissioned by the Election Commission to attract citizens to come forward and exercise their right to vote. But on no occasion did he find anything encouraging elderly people, or people with disabilities, or that such special measures were available that would encourage such voters to come and vote. The Team felt that, if such measures were taken, more voters would disabilities would probably be encouraged. In the upcoming elections, the Election Commission should broadcast on the media that special assistance would be available to voters with disabilities.


The 9th Parliamentary Elections held on 29th December 2008 is, for many reasons, being termed as not only the best conducted elections in the history of Bangladesh, but also an enviable & replicable model for this Region. The Bangladesh Election Commission has pulled off a commendable job and deserves plaudits for this hugely important task well completed. Indeed it received enormous support from the entire Government machinery, and the defense forces. It was a well coordinated collective effort on the Nation๏ฟฝs long awaited return to democracy. The citizens of Bangladesh also deserve a lot of credit for turning out in record numbers to ensure this historic event. However, a ten percent of the electorate - the voters with disabilities - could not be an effective part of this history, even though the major primary step of ensuring their registration had been completed. The responsibility now lies with the Election Commission to ensure that they too can participate in the upcoming Local Government elections and Parliamentary By-elections, effectively, with full dignity, in a barrier-free environment.

NFOWD takes this opportunity to thank the BEC for showing a keen interest in ensuring that voters with disabilities are also included in the electorate. There is also no lack of effort on the part of the BEC. These loopholes mentioned above could be addressed and amended if the recommendations are taken keenly and in the spirit they deserve. Only then, most of the voters with disabilities of this country will also be able to exercise a major citizenship right as equal citizens.

It has been a privilege for NFOWD to be actively involved in the observation of the historic 9th Parliamentary Elections. NFOWD also takes this opportunity to thank the Bangladesh Election Commission for giving it this highly responsible opportunity.

Additional Information

Country: Bangladesh
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Source: National Forum of Organizations Working with the Disabled (NFOWD)
When: 09/2/2009

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