The role of women in politics and the democratic process in Pakistan has always remained debatable. Though there have been efforts and steps to bring them into political parties, legislative houses and local governments, quite often achievements made by one government have been undone by the others. Apart from this, there are concerns that very few women are part of the decision-making spheres in the political parties, which feeds male domination in the structures and in the operation of the parties. Due to this reason, the political parties take decisions that are more in the favour of men than women.
This situation prevails at almost all levels but remaining within the scope of women representation, this week You! looks at the state of women in local governments in the country’s history and what lies in store for them…
The scribe spoke to different stakeholders to deduce how women can get empowered at the local government level, get maximum representation and have a say in the affairs of their administrative units. In Musharraf’s regime, the reserved quota of women in local governments was raised to 33 per cent which was a good step. With the passage of time, instead of going up, this per centage has gone down.
The above-mentioned facts, questions and expectations have also been taken up in a research report titled Gender Audit of Women Political Participation in Pakistan carried out by a non-profit organisation Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE). The report states that when women enter politics within this patriarchal context of democracy, they are unable to play a role to radically change the dominated political patterns rather they largely play political roles on male’s terms. It adds that efforts to improve female representation in politics have often focused on quotas and reserved shares.
“But what is required is that they are given real powers and a level playing field to pursue people-friendly agendas on their own and make positive difference in the lives of people. Unfortunately, when elected on reserved seats they do not have constituencies, funds and powers to do development work,” says Bushra Khaliq, Executive Director, WISE, referring to the research carried out for the report. She refers to two tables that give the historical context of women’s representation in the national assembly and the local governments and says dynamics are somewhat the same. “Women have been joining different tiers of governments on quotas and reserved estimates with little or no powers to play active decision-making roles. There should be minimum quota of 33 per cent seats for women in different legislative houses and local governments,” she urges.
“As local government elections are due in three provinces - Punjab, KP and Balochistan - and their tenure finishing in Sindh in August, it is the right time to campaign for the political rights of women and encourage them to vote and contest in these elections. The good thing in this context is that several Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have come up and joined hands for the purpose of making local governments strong, efficient, effective, independent and true representative of the people at the grass-root level,” informs Bushra.
“No doubt, networks and consortiums are more effective than individual organisations. For example, there is Inclusive Local Governance Impact Consortium (iLOGIC) working on these lines. It is a consortium of civil society organisations and groups that are eager to push for a vibrant system of local governance empowering common people through a democratic process,” tells Gulbaz Ali Khan, Co-Chair, Steering Committee and Media Focal Person for the consortium.
“The plan is that the iLOGIC members will build the capacity of local leadership among women, the elderly, the religious minorities and transgenders so that they can better understand the power of their vote. The consortium also aims to educate vulnerable communities about their rights and how to advocate for their rights when dealing with the existing local government structure,” he adds.
Gulbaz also shares that it is planned iLOGIC will bring on board academia, media, legislators, former local body representatives, lawyers and practitioners from other professions. “The purpose would be to create a conducive environment to deliberate, discuss, and debate on the strengthening of local governments and empowering vulnerable communities including women.
If we look at the history of local governments, we find that it was the 1973 constitution that ensured local government system as provincial matter and later the provincial governments made their own laws for the local government system,” imparts Gulbaz. “The major step to guarantee female representation in local government was taken in 1979, when the provincial government was bound to keep seats for female in local councils. The ratio of reservation was to be decided individually by each province. Three consecutive local government elections were held in the country in 1979, 1983 and 1987 respectively under these laws,” he adds.
“WISE has been promoting democracy through local governance at grass-root level since its inception in 2011. During the period, WISE undertook activities focusing capacity building of the local councillors, nurturing community women leadership and members of community-based vigilance committees through capacity building trainings to enhance their knowledge and skills to promote democracy at grass-root level,” conveys Bushra. During the period of 2016-18, WISE imparted trainings to 636 elected women councillors in districts of Lahore and Sheikhupura in Punjab. “We also strived to reduce the male-female voter deficit by reaching out to areas where women do not tend to register their CNICs,” she enthuses.
Following their interventions, general response towards women councillors changed. “Earlier women councillors were taken for granted by the fellow male councillors as well as the community but now they are taken seriously because they are more aware of their role and can assert themselves,” shares Bushra.
Salman Abid, Executive Director, Institute for Democratic Education & Advocacy (IDEA) and Member, Steering Committee of iLogic stresses, “At least 33 per cent seats shall be reserved for women in local governments as was the case during Musharraf’s regime. Besides, the political parties must give tickets to their true women workers rather than their relative women in elections that are on party basis.”
“The women contestants must base their election campaigns on genuine issues of their localities and refrain from basing these on condemnation of their opponents,” he adds.
Tanvir Jahan, Executive Director, Democratic Commission for Human Development (DCHD) elucidates, “When women were awarded good number of reserved seats, they thought it was the first step in the right direction.
But, later on it appeared to be a display of tokenism as they were not engaged in the affairs of the government, denied budgets and office and deprived of decision-making powers.
Local government units are small and women know the issues of their areas well and have better access to local households. Therefore, their numbers in local governments must be high and increased regularly.”
Zahid Islam, Executive Director, Sangat Development Foundation (SDF), who has a vast experience of study and research on local governments, points out that women councillors are generally asked to come up with projects for women like distributing sewing machines and stay out of other things. “This is a wrong mindset as women members are also representatives of the people of their area and must be consulted on all matters of the local government. Under the law, women elected on reserved seats and elected members have equal status but in practice the former is discriminated against. Even on reserved seats there shall be elections but sadly these are nominations to appease influential people,” he laments.
Women’s participation in politics helps advance gender equality and affects both the range of policy issues that get considered and the types of solutions that are proposed. Whether a legislator is male or female, it has a distinct impact on their policy priorities. There is also strong evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is a corollary increase in policy making that emphasises quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities. Hence, having pertinent roles for women councillors can possibly change the dynamics of our country for the better.