Whither women? | Pakistan Today

Whither women?

Declining female representation in upper echelon

Despite a marked increase in women voters’ in this year’s election and also in women contesting on general seats, the number of women showing their presence in Naya Pakistan’s National Assembly portrays a worrying picture.

The 2018 General Elections were quite significant as far as women’s political participation and representation is concerned. Section 9 of the Elections Act 2017 mandated Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to nullify election results if women’s turnout was lower than 10 percent or if there were reports about forced disenfranchisement of women. It was thus more than a pleasant surprise when in a village located in Punjab’s Khushab city, women came out to vote for the first time since independence. In Upper Dir, a conservative tribal district bordering with Afghanistan, where women were deprived of casting their vote since 1970s, the cultural taboo was broken and women set a precedent by choosing to vote this year. Having a minimal transportation system, undeveloped infra-structure and harsh weather conditions, among the people taking part in election process in NA-221 and NA-222 constituencies of the Thar district, women turnout was more than 70 percent – among the highest in the entire country. So far, tabdeeli was apparent.

Then, it had been made mandatory in the new election law that political parties must allocate at least five per cent tickets to women on directly elected or general seats. This was in addition to the seats reserved for women in the legislatures.

As a result, as many as 171 women candidates were in the running on 272 general seats of the National Assembly across the country – the highest number of women candidates in Pakistan’s electoral history. Among these, 105 women were awarded party tickets while another 66 contested as independent candidates. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) awarded the maximum number of tickets -19 – to women candidates, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) each fielded 11 women candidates.

However, a closer look revealed that the majority of the political parties appeared to be treating the mandatory quota as a mere formality. Among 11,885 candidates in the run for the July 25 general elections for the National and four Provincial Assemblies, there were 5,768 ticket holders of almost 94 political parties, out of which there were only 305 female candidates – barely 5.2 per cent of the total ticket holders contesting from political parties. Almost 45 per cent political parties participating in the elections did not field a single female candidate.

Also, media reports claimed that mainstream political parties accommodated most women candidates in constituencies where they were weak. The outcome of the elections validated this point.

Only eight women could make it to the National Assembly through the direct elections. Four of these women were from Sindh. Unfortunately, the number of women getting elected on general seats is decreasing in every subsequent Assembly; in 2008 there were 16 women, in 2013 there were 9, and now in 2018 the number has further shrunk down to 8 – a worrying situation obviously requiring another tabdeeli.

Among the 16 ministers and 5 advisors in the new cabinet, 3 are women, with two already having served different governments on other posts.

Unfortunately, the number of women getting elected on general seats is decreasing in every subsequent Assembly; in 2008 there were 16 women, in 2013 there were 9, and now in 2018 the number has further shrunk down to 8 – a worrying situation obviously requiring another tabdeeli

So can participation by women in the law making institutions of Pakistan be largely ensured only through reserved seats? The answer should be and is in negative. Though women elected indirectly on reserved seats have played a critical role in pushing pro-women legislation and highlighting human rights issues, this representation lacks a power base because women in reserved seats are not accountable to a constituency, which reinforces their dependency on the party leadership.

There are an insufficient number of women in decision-making bodies of nearly all the major political parties. For instance, in the above 50-member central executive committee of the PPP, there are only 4 female members; while are less than 10 women among the more than 100 members in the central working committee of the PML-N. PTI’s 80-member committee boasts a little more than 10 female members.

Female participation should be encouraged and promoted at all levels, starting from the district and even lower. In the next elections, political parties should ensure that the chances of their women candidates winning is higher by fielding them in strongholds rather than traditionally weaker constituencies. For this, the women candidates would require additional funds from the party to develop their own political space.

Women’s equal participation in politics is their basic right. They constitute nearly half of the total population of the country. Only with encouraging not only primary but higher education of women and then engaging them in mainstream professions, including the political structure can their active participation in the decision making processes be ensured. This will, in turn, deepen democracy and strengthen the process of development in the country.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs.