The threats of violence and harassment squeeze the space for women in politics
here are several reasons why women in Pakistan, like in other South Asian countries, face violence in public and political spaces. Inequality and power structures where men control power, resources and opportunities are some of the main reasons for women’s inability to enter public and political spaces. During the 16 days of activism, which run from November 25 to December 10, as an annual campaign to raise awareness and call for the elimination of violence, we must highlight violence against women in political spaces and in public life.
The UN defines violence against women in political life as “any act of, or threat of, gender-based violence, resulting in physical, sexual, psychological harm or suffering to women, that prevents them from exercising and realising their political rights, whether in public or private spaces, including the right to vote and hold public office; to vote in secret and to freely campaign; to associate and assemble; and to enjoy freedoms of opinion and expression. Such violence can be perpetrated by a family member, community member and or by the state.”
Despite a woman having been twice elected as prime minister, the reserved seats for women in the parliament; and elections laws that require political parties to field at least 5 percent women candidates, space for women in politics is limited, and violence and harassment against them have not ended. This includes the obstacles in the way of women political workers and activists. The hindrance is caused both by the societal structures of power imbalance and the state’s crackdown on dissent. Many women are currently languishing in jails without prosecution and conviction following a crackdown on political workers.
Now that the general elections have been announced for February 2024, it is important to use this space to highlight best practices that can be put in place to help identify and eliminate violence against women in the political arena. Let’s start with the Election Commission of Pakistan.
The ECP has pro-actively advocated for pro-women provisions in the law to allow women more representation and focus on women voters. These are, of course, welcome developments. However, having the law in place is not enough. The ECP’s own procedures and electoral staff require a gender-lens review. The ECP should go through an external gender assessment before the next elections to help highlight gaps and provide recommendations on how to make political space for women safer and to increase women’s political participation. An external audit should not be taken as hostile criticism, rather a way to identify inequity in policies and attitudes. If done correctly, it has the potential of allowing the gender mainstreaming of systems, greater and safer participation of women and a more inclusive ECP. It will also be an exercise in strengthening participation in democratic processes.
Political parties have a major role to play in terms of monitoring and eliminating violence against women in political spaces. Electoral procedures leading to discrimination, harassment and violence and how to deal with these should such incidents arise must be deliberated upon. The Labour Party in the UK set up an internal sexual harassment policy in response to the #MeToo movement. Unfortunately, even the most progressive mainstream political parties in Pakistan, have no internal systems or guidelines in place to address violence against their workers or representatives. Holding male politicians from all political parties accountable for use of discriminatory language towards women colleagues can be a good start.
The National Assembly’s women parliamentary caucus must have a working document that provides an overarching monitoring guide, which can also be used to agitate in parliament for safer political spaces for women. In Tunisia, a guide on electoral violence against women was provided to election observers. The caucus should consider something along the lines. The National Commission on the Status of Women, the National Commission on Human Rights and the caucus can create a tripartite forum to deliberate how to create safer, more inclusive environments for women at all levels, from local government to provincial and federal parliamentarians.
The judiciary must understand its role to ensure that Pakistan’s international and constitutional obligations with regard to equality and women’s rights are met. Similarly, the media has a major role to play, both in highlighting violence against women in politics and to disseminate awareness messages that are accessible to most people. Some people in the mainstream media have been unable to keep out misogynist and discriminatory attitudes, possibly on account of a lack of awareness that this makes harassment and violence more likely as well as acceptable.
We must remember that our democracy cannot function without 49 percent of the population. Allocation of reserve seats and laws on statute books will not ensure adequate representation of women in politics; nor will these prevent violence. For real change, a pro-active approach, transformative interventions and political will are required.
If violence and fear of violence cannot be eradicated, we will not make any meaningful change towards a more inclusive and peaceful country. The question is, do we really seek that change?
The writer is a lawyer and consultant. X handle: @BenazirJatoi