Women’s political participation is recognised as an essential component in gender equality. In Pakistan the gender gap in participation is particularly high
Gender equality is an essential aspect for a responsive and accountable democratic society. Pakistan adopted the universal adult suffrage in 1956, granting adult citizens the de jure right to vote. However, severe gender inequalities in electoral participation have persisted.
Women’s political participation is recognised as an essential component of gender equality. In Pakistan, the gender gap in participation is particularly high. Some of the issues that matter to women are significantly different from those that matter most to men.
The constitution, through various amendments, has guaranteed the right for the representation of women in both houses of parliament. The constitutions of 1956 and 1962 provided for six (6) reserved seats for women in the National Assembly. The 1973 constitution reserved ten (10) seats for women for a period of 10 years from the commencement of the constitution. The number of seat was increased to twenty (20) in 1985.
The number was increased to sixty (60) under Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2002. The mechanism for election to the reserved seats in the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies is nomination by parties in proportion to their elected strength. Each province is considered an electoral district, and the seats are distributed among the women candidates proposed by the parties in proportion to the number of seats won by those parties in the generally contested seats, which are elected from single-member districts by the first-past-the-post system.
The quota system is a temporary special measure to achieve gender balance in legislatures. It does not facilitate the real political empowerment and democratic participation of women.
In 2018 women contested more seats, even in some of the culturally conservative parts of the country. A look at the voting data reveals many challenges in Pakistan’s push for electoral equality. Women candidates may be on the ballot, but that in no way implies that women will vote for them - if they vote at all. It is commonly and fairly assumed that urban women are more likely to exercise autonomy over various aspects of their lives which includes political participation.
Quotas are viewed as one of the most effective affirmative actions to increase women’s political participation. In Pakistan, the issue is the manner in which the quotas have come to fruition. It is argued that the system is a temporary special measure to achieve gender balance in legislatures, but does not facilitate real political empowerment and democratic participation of women. Some people have complained that women legislators are treated as mere fillers for statistics without real political and economic power. In effect, it is said, the system provides only symbolic representation to women. Instead of independently working on policy issues, the women elected through this system are beholden to the political parties, unlike the directly elected legislators who have their power base in their constituencies.
A number of policy solutions is needed to bridge the gap between male and female legislators. There needs to be a change brought about in a socio-political processes to which extent the political parties are key players. There needs to be an amendment as to which there is an increase in each party’s membership of women; this is needed to ensure that women participate in the processes of decision making.
Women’s political participation is not only about increasing their numbers but also about effectiveness and impact. Women have to participate in making key decisions to be the agents of change and development.
The writer is an advocate of the High Courts currently practicing in Lahore.