Women’s Representation in Parliament – The Issue of Quota Seats The second in a series of Policy Seminars on Women’s Empowerment Women’s Parliamentary Caucus with support from UNDP and UN Women

13 May 2014

Opening Remarks delivered by Marc-André Franche

Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly, European Ambassador Mr. Lars Gunner Wigemark, Honourable Chairperson of the National Committee on the Status of Women, Honourable Chairpersons of Committees on Parliamentary Affairs, Madam Secretary of the Women Parliamentary Caucus, Parliamentarians, ladies and gentlemen.

Good afternoon.

It is an honour to be here today to provide the opening remarks at the second Seminar on Women’s Empowerment in Politics, hosted by UNDP and UN Women.

I would like to begin by quoting a statement issued by UNDP Administrator Helen Clark on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day, “Gender equality doesn’t just improve the lives of individual women, girls and their families, it makes economic sense, strengthens democracy, and enables long-term sustainable progress.”

No country will reach its full potential if its female citizens do not enjoy full equality.

And here in Pakistan I see this potential.

From Qila Saifullah in Balochisan, to Nowabshah in Sindh, Vehari in South Punjab to Malakand in KP, and other places that I have visited, I am struck not only by the rich diversity of this country, its natural beauty and the generous hospitality in the towns and villages that I visit… but also by the immense potential of its people.

For me, one of the biggest challenges facing Pakistan is how to realize the potential of its biggest asset – the people of this country. And this issue poses two of the major questions framing the development debate in Pakistan.

  • How can the growing youth population be transformed into a catalyst for economic growth and sustainable development?
  • And how can women in this country be empowered – socially, economically and politically – so that they too can assert their rightful place as powerful agents of change and form another center of gravity for economic growth and sustainable development – at the community and national level?

It is these two factors – empowering women and youth – that in many ways hold the key to Pakistan’s future success.

This represents a generational challenge for this country.

And yes, there are many issues that need to be overcome if this challenge is to be successfully addressed.

But, at the same time, I feel it is critical to maintain a sense of perspective. All too often, not just in Pakistan, but in other countries suffering from internal strife that I have worked in, it is easy to get sucked into negative narratives that distort the reality of what is happening on the ground –especially at the community level.

And in Pakistan, just like elsewhere, it is the stories behind the headlines that provide a more accurate picture of the state of society.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Malakand again where UNDP is implementing a rule of law project addressing gaps in the justice sector and improving access to justice, especially for women and other marginalized groups.

I would like to briefly share with you an inspiring anecdote from the trip because I believe it is pertinent to the overarching theme of today’s seminar – the empowerment of women.

Whilst I was in Malakand I met with young, female, paralegals who have received training under the project to conduct legal aid clinics in remote communities. What struck me was not only their determination to overcome cultural barriers to fulfilling their career ambitions, but also their commitment to play an advocacy role at the community level to inform women of their basic legal rights and provide access to justice to vulnerable communities.

This why I say it is important to explore what is happening behind the headlines.

Social change requires role models to inspire and to increase momentum. These female paralegals are such role models…but so too are women parliamentarians.

The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus is making a significant contribution toward increasing the role of women in the parliamentary process. Through their ability to operate on a cross-party basis, several landmark pieces of legislation have been passed on women’s rights.

Through their collective efforts meaningful progress is being made to push back the barriers of gender inequality, reform a legal framework that has yet to be aligned with noble rhetoric on women’s rights, and address a big scar on Pakistan’s democratic profile.

As everyone here today recognizes, much more needs to be done to address gender inequality in this country. Otherwise seminars such as this one would not be necessary.

Looking at the gender landscape in Pakistan today, in terms of political participation, urgent measures are needed to create a level playing field for women in the electoral process. As I am sure you will all agree, this lingering democratic deficit undermines the quality of Pakistan’s democracy.

And that is why today’s discussion on the merits and demerits of gender quotas as a mechanism for enhancing women’s political representation is timely and important.

It has been a year since the general election in which only six women were directly elected to general seats.  This did not represent progress toward addressing the gender deficit in governance structures.

From our work in over 177 countries around the world, one thing is clear: gender quotas alone cannot transform the quality of women’s representation. They won’t work unless they are adapted to women’s direct representation – this is where the debate, in our opinion, needs to be focused.

Whatever the outcome of today’s discussion, I believe one factor is critically important for continued progress in addressing the under-representation of women in governance structures: Sustaining cross-party support for women’s empowerment, through the Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses, and preventing fracturing along party lines. As my colleague Tracy said at last week’s seminar, “Women’s empowerment and gender equality is a non-partisan issue. No single party can champion this issue if real progress is to be made.”

I will finish by making two brief points.

First, on the issue of dialogue. Dialogue is fundamental to the process of change . It’s how we build consensus. But, what all participants in these seminars such as the one today need to ultimately consider is how does consensus reached through dialogue translate into meaningful change…or the emergence of a new reality, if you will.

Second, and this is a point I made earlier, accomplishing development goals is not possible if women are denied meaningful political participation. Hopefully this seminar, and subsequent seminars, will offer the basic contours of a roadmap to take Pakistan forward in this direction.

Thank you.