Women in Pakistan – Aspiring to a Better Tomorrow

‘No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of the houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable condition in which our women have to live. You should take your women along with you as comrades in every sphere of life.’ (Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah)

Introduction

The importance of women’s political participation and mobilization for a viable democratic polity is being increasingly realized in all corners of the world. Any democratic system cannot run successfully with just half of the population. The traditional norms regarding women’s activities have been carried generation to generation unquestioningly. The general assumption is that the political activities belong to the ‘Public Sphere’ and women by nature belong to the ‘Private Sphere’ and ‘Politics’ is something ‘alien’ to their nature.

What is Empowerment?

The different definitions of empowerment range between defining it as a largely individual process of taking control of and responsibility for one’s life, and defining it as a political process of granting human rights and social justice to disadvantaged groups of people. Empowerment is a ‘social action process that promotes participation of people, organizations, and communities in gaining control over their lives in their community and larger societies. Hence, empowerment is not characterized as an achieving power to dominate others rather it is power to act with others to effect change. In this way, empowerment challenges the political and social theory to address the problems of welfare state and democracy de novo.

According to the United Nations, women’s empowerment has five components:

1. Women’s sense of self-worth.

2. Their right to have and to determine choices.

3. Their right to have access to opportunities and resources.

4. Their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home.

5. Their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order; nationally and internationally.

Status of Women in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the situation of women empowerment is not satisfactory in spite of quantitative increase which had not affected the lives of the women qualitatively. Although Pakistan has made great strides over the last two decades in empowering women and enhancing their political participation, yet their empowerment befitting to their numbers is still a far cry. The female population was last reported at 49.19% in 2011, according to a World Bank Report published in 2012. Today, it is reaching to 51%. There is no denying the fact that at present, there are more girls in schools, fewer women dying in childbirth, more women are in wage employment outside agriculture and more women are serving in Pakistan’s parliament. But, it is quite evident that the progress and achievements are not spread out widely and evenly. The urban-rural and region-to-region differences play important role when it comes to access the women empowerment. Urban women are living an entirely different life with different realities as compared to the rural women. Women of north and central Punjab enjoy liberties which women of interior Sindh, South Punjab or tribal belt of Balochistan may not have an inkling of. This striking difference is the main factor which has put Pakistan in the list of countries having enormous gender disparity. Gender equality is not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. World data show that empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

Issues of Women

In all major aspects of human life, women of Pakistan, particularly rural and illiterate ones, are suffering in all spheres of life especially health, education, economy, and legal, social and political affairs. The problem stems from the unidentified interests of the women due to their under-representation in the political institutions, which marked their low level of mobilization, as well as of their empowerment.

Women’s representation in Parliament
Pakistan was the first Muslim country to have a female Prime Minister. Top cabinet ministries, including finance and foreign, have gone to women politicians. However, these landmarks achieved at the national level have not translated into political empowerment for women on the provincial level. It is a known fact that nation-building processes cannot work, and development goals cannot be achieved if women are denied meaningful political participation. To ensure this, Pakistan’s parliament introduced a 17% gender quota in 2002 in all legislative houses. Unfortunately, the qualitative indicators of women’s meaningful political participation have not improved over the years. Despite accounting for 22% of the federal parliament, from 2002-07 women could not achieve much in terms of lawmaking except the Women’s Protection Act. In the subsequent mandate of 2008-13 however, women made more progress, overseeing policy implementation and raising important issues in all legislative houses.Gender quotas alone, as global experience has shown, cannot transform the quality of women’s representation. They won’t work unless they are adapted to women’s direct representation, in which more women would win elections rather than taking up reserved seats. Compared to around 13 women in 2002, the number of women on general seats was 16 in 2008, but only 8 won National Assembly seats in 2013.

This downward trend was indicative of the shrinking space for women in the electoral process, despite a numerically larger parliamentary presence. Urgent measures are thus needed to create a level playing field for women in the electoral process.

Another issue ‘much lesser spoken about’ is Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWIP), which has recently been highlighted by a joint study conducted by UN Women and Center for Social Research in India, Nepal and Pakistan. The study underlines sidelining, refusal to involve women in budget discussions and manifesto drafting, the passing of derogatory remarks, expectation of sexual favours, the insinuation of sexual misdemeanor, threat of violence rather than actual physical violence and character assassination as a tool but mostly to seriously damage the reputation and achievements of a woman in politics with the intention of reducing their public support.

Accusing a woman’s character for reducing her political weight and public support was seen in recent years with a number of women parliamentarians including Kashmala Tariq, Hina Rabbani Khar, Sharmeela Faruqi, Sherry Rehman and many others.

However, it is quite encouraging that the women parliamentarians had begun to work together on important issues. They have raised their collective voices on issues that affect women’s lives, transcending their party politics for the common goal of women’s empowerment. Having organised a women’s parliamentary caucus (WPC), they achieved some landmark legislations on women’s rights including the Amendment to Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act that provided for mandatory financial and legal assistance to women in prisons; the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act; the Establishment of Benazir Income Support Programme Act, which proved to be a useful income support initiative; the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act for Acid Crimes; the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act and the National Commission on the Status of Women Act.

This presents a very optimistic future scenario. It is hoped that this collective thinking among women parliamentarians would go a long way and the current parliament will seriously take measures to not only amend the laws for more women on general seats but also for making the modality of filling women’s reserved seats more democratic and representative to create space for women from all classes to influence lawmaking. Special attention needs to be given to address violence against women in politics in which the media must play its powerful role.

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