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Programme Outputs

Women Better Able To Participate Safely In Politics And In Public Spaces

Women’s exclusion in the formal arena of politics is a historic and global phenomenon. Despite several international conventions, covenants and commitments to gender equality, the gender gap with only 19 percent women in the world parliaments is stark and abysmal. The gender imbalance in democracies around the world is a continuing challenge for the international community. In Pakistan, there is no constitutional bar on the political participation of women as voters or as candidates. However, women’s representation in the national legislature has never moved beyond 10% until 2001 when the gender quota was restored by the military regime at the local, provincial and national level. Through a legislative provision 33 percent seats were reserved for women in local government and 17 percent in the national and provincial assemblies and senate.


In Pakistan, despite being a country where a woman was twice elected as Prime Minister, gender equality in the political arena is still a distant dream for a vast majority of women, who are often not even allowed to cast their votes in certain parts of the country. Pakistanwas ranked 55th out of 86 in 2012 on the Social Institutions and Gender Index. The 2011 Human Development Index (HDI) score for the country was 0.504, placing it in 145th place (out of 187 countries). The Gender Inequality Index score was 0.373 and Global Gender Gap Index rating for 2011 0.5583, placing it in 133rd place (out of a total of 135 countries).However, Pakistan is performing relatively well on the women’s political empowerment indicator because of the gender quota in legislatures. It is ranked 52nd on the political empowerment indicator in the Global Gender Gap Index. Women’s exclusion in the formal political processes is the result of the interplay of multiple structural, institutional and functional obstacles that are present in the country.


Structural Barriers to Women’s Political Participation

The discursive frameworks built on the ideology of the sexual division of labour that defines women’s role exclusively in the private arena of the home and men’s role in the public sphere is the key structural barrier to women’s participation in public life. The dichotomy of public and private spaces delineates politics as a male prerogative. When women enter the public space of politics, they have to constantly confront male resistance and defend their presence as a legitimate right.The institution of segregation as the linchpin of women’sgender role in society is maintained through the concept of purdah and generally restricting women’s mobility outside the private arena of the home. Such attitudes are sustained by lingering feudal and tribal patriarchal normsand practices that maintain a strangleholdover the bodies and sexuality of women, and pose a formidable challenge to women’s participation in politics.

Thus a fragile democracy constantly interrupted by military coups, poor economic performance and the inability of the State to provide equal opportunities to citizens, combined with widening disparities along the lines of class, gender, religion, ethnicity, andgrowing religious extremism and militancy are some of the contextual/structural barriers that hamper women’s participation in politics.The nature of the post-colonial state of Pakistan that is still struggling after sixty-six years of independence to define its identity and decide whether it is a theocratic or a secular state,also plays a part in restricting women from participating in public life.

Institutional Barriers to Women’s Political Participation


Political parties are the key actors in facilitating or impeding women’s participation in politics. However, political parties are dominated by males from the elite class, and this, together with dynastic control over leadership positions has discouraged democratic practices within the mainstream political parties and contributed to blocking women’s entry in politics.


Another key institution, the Election Commission of Pakistan, not only hasa huge gender imbalance in its workforce, it has until very recently continued to neglect gender issues and concerns despite pressure from women’s rights groups and despite technical support from donor agencies for the past many years. The ECP has neglected to maintain gender disaggregated data on voters’ turnout, take measures to bridgethe gender gap in electoral rolls, or launch awareness programmes to sensitize voters.It did not take action where women were barred from voting,or respond adequately to incidents of violence against women voters, candidates and polling agents during elections.However, some improvement in its performance was witnessed during the recently held elections in 2013.


Functional Barriers to Women’s Political Participation

Low social, economic and political investment in building women’s human capital defines women’s own self-perception and the perception of politics. Women often lack education, economic resources, confidence, knowledge, ambition and political skills to enter into politics. These personal and psychological factors undermine women’s capacity to participate in governance structures, and together with women’s familial responsibilities leave little time and space for them to aspire for political roles.       


Issues and Challenges for Women Voters

Among the key issues and challenges faced by women voters are: under-registration as voters,and absence of computerized national identity cards (CNIC). Statistics show that fewer women than men are registered in voters’ lists, and many do not possess the required CNICs that would enable them to be registered and to cast their votes. Even if the above requirements have been met,women may not be allowed to cast their votes as they choose, and may have to vote as directed by male members of their families.


Reaching the polling stations can also be a problem. Because of restrictions on their mobility, women in remote rural and tribal areas depend on their men for transportationand may not be permitted to venture out on their own, even if public transport is available; and the male domination of polling staff can also negatively impactthe turnout of women voters.


There are instances where women, individually and collectively, are prevented from exercising their right to vote by their families, tribes, clans and local and religious leaders, sometimes by threats to their physical wellbeing. Candidates from contesting parties support these restrictions and sign agreements pledging that they will not allow their women voters to cast their votes. More recently, the Taliban too have entered the equation, and are posing serious threats to women voters and candidates.


These cultural and structural factors serve to disenfranchise women voters and result in lower turnout of female voters. A study of the 2008 general elections by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) indicated a drastic reduction in the number of women voters in Pakistan, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)and areas morethreatened by extremism. According to the report, the number was reduced by approximately 45% in KP, and compared to 3.92 million women voters in 2002 there were only 2.17 million women voters in 2008. The internal displacement in FATA due to military operations following the 9/11 attackswas responsible for an alarming decline of 96% in women voters. A host of factors, for example:insecurity, recession and,perhaps, disappointment with the political system resulted in a decline in women voters in Sindh (41%), Punjab (37%) and Islamabad Capital Territory (19%). The report showed an overall reduction of women voters by39% as compared to 18% male voters. Women were 40% of the total voters in 2002, but came down to 30% in 2008.[1]


Issues and Challenges for Women Party Workers

It is difficult to assess women’s membership of political parties, as the major political parties do not maintain a proper record of membership and its gender composition. However, almost all political parties, with the exception of the Awami National Party, have women’s wings. Women are fairly active in their parties, and yet their active participation has not translated into their gaining key positions within the party structures.


There are an insufficient number of women in decision-making bodies of nearly all the major political parties. For instance, in the 53-member Central Executive Committee of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), there is only one female member; while there is not a single woman among the 26 members in the Executive Committee of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).[2]


Women workers in political partiesare not taken seriously by the male leadership and have little say in party affairs.Though they are hard working and dedicated, they are overlooked when candidates are being chosen to contest elections. 


Issues and Challenges for Women’s Candidates

Women as candidates face several barriers, ranging from lack of party support to financial constraints. Women are denied party ticketson the plea that they lack social and financial capital, and are expected to run their election campaigns from their own resources, as are the men.The attitude of the leadership and the culture within political parties generally mirror the male patriarchal attitudes that prevail in the private sphere of the home. 


Issues and Challenges for Women Representatives

Though more women are now contesting on general seats, women’s representation in the national and provincial assemblies and in the senate is essentially achieved through a gender quota that is filled indirectly by nomination. These indirectly elected women lack a power base because they are not accountable to a constituency, which reinforces their dependency on the party leadership. And though women elected indirectly on reserved seats have played a critical role in pushing though pro-women legislation and highlighting human rights issues, they are generally considered less important in comparison to their directly elected female colleagues.


Notwithstanding the above, there have been some positive gains. Women legislators, coming as they do from varying backgrounds and with different levels of understanding regarding gender issues, werenevertheless successful in forging a vibrant cross-party women’s caucus in the 2008-2013 National Assembly. Consistent interaction of the women’s movement and civil society with women members of political parties and women legislators,as well as a more sensitized media have been instrumental in promoting a better understanding of women’s issues within political parties and in general.


As stated earlier, Pakistan has one of the lowest human and women’s development indicators. Despite women’s presence in higher numbers in the parliament, Pakistan slipped from 127th place in 2008 to 132nd in 2010 on the GGGI. There is a rising trend in gender-based violence, violation of human rights, religious extremism and militancy. The contradictory reality of a country with a higher number of women in the parliament and a rise in gender-based violence is undoubtedly linked with the rising trends in poverty, militancy,crime and violence in the country and a weak criminal justice system that allows perpetrators of violence to escape punishment. Therefore, any initiative that enables women parliamentarians are to play a greater role in supporting measures that promote/protect women’s human rights demands a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the larger context that shapes women’s participation and representation in legislation and policy making.


The Way Forward

Women’s equal participation in politics is their basic right. They constitute nearly half of the total population of the country. Their contribution through their triple roles of productive, reproductive and community management is vitalto the development of the economy and society. Their active participation in the decision making processes, determining how resources are to be used andin setting national priorities will not only improve the lot of women,it will also deepen democracy and strengthen the process of development in the country.


The foregoing discussion clearly indicates that women’s political participation is not solely dependent on women’s own capabilities and capacities. The larger context of different power relationships, such as: public and private patriarchy, male domination of political parties,the masculine nature of the State,imperfect political processes and religious extremism,all affect the ability of women to participate meaningfully in politics at different levels, as voters, members of political parties and as public representatives.


The way forward must take into account the progress that has been made. Good initiatives must be sustained and achievements must be built upon and taken forward.


The Programme

The programme approach to Output 1 is inclusive, rights based and rooted in the inter-sectorial approach to gender. This calls for a multi-faceted methodology that includes sensitizing communities about their political rights, creating a demand from the grassroots up for the rights of women as voters, office bearers and decision makers, and engaging with policy makers for removing the barriers that stand in the way of meeting these demands. This requires engagement at many levels with different stakeholders with awareness and understanding ofthe barriers that hinder the participation of women in politics in the different cultural and socio-economic situations in the country,so that appropriate strategies may be initiated.

[1] Similar trends and data is quoted in Policy Brief: Electoral Reforms and Women’s Political Participation, Sabina Ansari.

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