Local Governments and the Participation of Women
The establishment of local governments is a key element of democracy, as it provides the platform for citizens to be involved in the planning, execution and monitoring of public service delivery. Local governments are considered a nursery for future leadership and provide them with practical experience to participate in governance. It is, therefore, important that all sectors of society are represented in local governments.
Democracies around the world make special provisions in the relevant laws to enable representation of women and to reduce barriers to their meaningful participation. With the re-emergence of conservative trends, the mandated participation of women in local governments can be an important vehicle for driving change in the country’s political landscape.
The local government ordinance of 2001, in response to civil society advocacy, reserved 33 percent of the seats in all tiers of local government for women. There was concern that women would either be unwilling to contest the local government elections or their participation would be constrained by cultural and social barriers. On the contrary, 36,000 women entered local governments, filling 90 percent of the seats reserved for women. This silent revolution was replayed in 2005 when 156,925 women candidates contested the local elections and 98.3 percent of reserved seats for women in the Union Councils were filled.
Women’s participation in direct elections indicated a more open society, responsive to changing social realities and the determination of women to become a part of mainstream politics, despite an unfavourable environment. The performance of these women in the local councils also disproved apprehensions about women’s ability to participate in governance and produce results for their constituencies. Their success was also evidenced by the tremendous acceptance and pride exhibited by their families and neighbours and the acknowledgement of their constituencies. Their involvement and advocacy also led to the passage of several pieces of pro-women legislation and policies by the federal and provincial government. Many of these women also became active community workers and advocates.
Even after the dissolution of the local governments, many of these women have remained active participants in their communities, providing social, political and economic support to their community members. A large number of the women who started out as councillors at the Union Council level also emerged as Members of Provincial Assemblies in the 2008 and 2013 general elections.
However, the reduction in seats reserved for women in the recently passed local government laws is unfortunate, despite the positive results linked to their past political participation. This is evident from the lower rate of women’s participation in the general elections of 2013, which resulted in a much lower proportion of women in policy and decision-making positions. As a result, the influence of women politicians has diminished and there is a risk that the roles and participation of women in the political, social and economic arena will be further diminished.
In this context, it is essential for the local government laws to provide for greater participation by women in local governments so they can not only play a productive role in lifting the status of their communities, particularly women, but also prepare themselves for political participation in the provincial and national assemblies.