Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses as Agents of Change

By Marc-André Franche, Country Director UNDP Pakistan

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 percent gender quota in 2002 in all legislative houses.

Unfortunately, despite the quota, qualitative indicators of women’s meaningful political participation remained low. Despite accounting for 22 percent 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 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 into women’s direct representation, in which more women would win elections rather than taking up reserved seats. Compared to around 13 women in 2002, 16 women won general seats in 2008, while only 8 won National Assembly seats in 2013.  This downward trend was indicative of the shrinking space for women in the electoral process, despite numerically larger parliamentary presence. Urgent measures are thus needed to create a level playing field for women in the electoral process.

While in 2002 women parliamentarians mostly worked in isolation, without enough sharing of inter- and intra-party experiences, in 2008 they had begun to work together on important issues. They raised their collective voices on issues that affect women’s lives and transcending their party politics for the common goal of women’s empowerment.

Having organized a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC), they achieved seven landmark legislations on women’s rights. These included the Amendment to Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act that provided for mandatory financial and legal assistance to women in prisons; the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act; the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the 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.

In addition to legislation, they also highlighted a wide range of women’s issues on the floors of the Houses. For example, without their advocacy for women IDPs after military operations in Swat, gender responsive relief efforts, treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims and meaningful debate on budgetary allocations in health and education, most of the debate about governance in these fields would have been incomplete.

In the current mandate, they have gone a step further. Pakistan now has four Provincial WPCs in addition to a federal one, the first initiative of its kind in South Asia. Today, 85 women Parliamentarians and around 130 women MPAs from more than 20 political parties are working together to advocate for legislation that takes gender into consideration and effective implementation of laws and policies that affect the lives of women and families.

The effectiveness of WPCs as a center of gravity to establish cross-party consensus among women parliamentarians has been demonstrated twice in recent months. Two Private Members Bills have emerged from the WPC, both addressing legal barriers to women’s political participation. One focuses on the 10 percent mandatory awarding of tickets for general seats to women, while the other, if passed, would ensure that elections be rendered null and void in any constituency where women are prevented from voting. Both Bills are not just symbolic of women parliamentarians demonstrating their willingness to ensure that gender issues transcend party divisions, but also of their collective determination to address one of Pakistan’s lingering democratic deficits – the under-representation of women in governance structures.

The Punjab Women’s Caucus has already launched an ambitious strategic roadmap for the current year that includes work on domestic violence, acid attacks, marriages and divorces of Hindus and Christians, necessary amendments to the sexual harassment bill, home based and domestic workers, etc. Caucuses in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa have begun work on their agendas. All the WPCs are in the process of establishing their secretariats, with the help of UNDP, which will be equipped to provide gender analyses of policies and laws.

This presents a very optimistic future scenario. It is hoped that this collective thinking among women parliamentarians would go a long way in the shape of these Caucuses. The challenge is to keep up the cross-party spirit and build on the spaces the former caucus has created. We call on all international and national development partners to join in supporting the Caucuses and the legislative houses to achieve sustainable development and gender equality.

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