During the last session of the Balochistan Assembly, in May this year, MPA Mahjabeen Shireen was demeaned and forced to leave the chamber after she brought her infant to the house. She had not been permitted to leave the sick child anywhere else on the assembly premises. The speaker ruled that Ms Shireen must leave as a ‘stranger’ was present in the house, violating parliamentary rules. Shockingly, none of Mahjabeen’s peers, including women members of the house, spoke up in her defence as she walked away from the forum. Now she has won an important victory for all women parliamentarians in her province. Following her campaign and the attention received by her story of open discrimination, the Balochistan Assembly has become the first in the country to set up a daycare centre for small children within it and made it clear that all female parliamentarians with children can use this facility at any time. The chief minister of the province has also said similar centres must be set up at other government-run facilities in Balochistan.
This is an important step forward. But a great deal more needs to be done. While the country’s labour laws, including a specific policy laid out in 2010, state that facilities for childcare must be provided at any place where women work, this is only rarely the practice. The Factories Act of 1934 also ensures daycare facilities for working mothers. But these simply do not exist at such workplaces, and in practice only relatively few, essentially those intended for more privileged women, possess any kind of childcare. The Punjab Factories Rules of 1978 which set aside rooms to be used only by the children of working mothers and their attendants, in order to facilitate breastfeeding, are also not in place in many places of work for women.
Examples need to be set by assemblies and parliamentarians. Mahjabeen Shireen has done an enormous service to women from all walks of life by taking the lead on this. As she has said, there are precedents everywhere in the world, where women parliamentarians rather than missing a session have brought small children into the chamber. In a country where a prime minister gave birth to and nurtured a baby while in office, we need to take many other measures to facilitate women with children and ensure they are not discriminated against in any fashion. This includes offering them time to feed or attend to children and making this a routine part of working life. The path Ms Shireen bravely chalked out must be followed on until more measures are in place and more facilities available to ensure no woman is discriminated against or forced out of work because of her role as child-bearer and caregiver.