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INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: Legislations Passed – The Silver Lining

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Today is a day to highlight the most pertinent issues confronting women, to celebrate our achievements, to identify the  gaps and, most of all, stand in solidarity for change. Today is not a Hallmark day to merely say, “Happy Women’s Day!”
The most prominent achievement for women in the past few years has been the passage of new progressive legislation for women. Perhaps this is the time to reflect on well we have utilized those advances. How many steps forward have we taken and how far back have we slipped. On the whole, we can say that regardless of the passage of good legislation, we cannot move forward unless we all are willing to make it work.
Taking a quick look at the progress made on the implementation of the seven laws passed over the last four years, it seems that the highest marks can be given to the Benazir Income Support Program, the anti-sexual harassment legislation and empowering the NCSW. Although quite different in nature these are the only ones that have an organised mechanism for implementation.
The Benazir Income Support Program Act culminated in a project that made its mark by directly assisting thousands of women to develop themselves. Although there were concerns that the new Government might allow it to lapse, a wise decision last year will allow the program to continue and build upon its achievements.
On the sexual harassment front, within the first year after passage, over 1000 cases were filed and the figure has steadily risen.  However, many complainants are facing increased pressure to drop their cases and several accused have been able to save themselves through high level connections. Nevertheless, the banking sector, including the State Bank, several federal government agencies, such as NADRA, as well as HEC and many universities have shown outstanding results, setting a precedent for the future. At a ceremony in December last year, awards were given to eight organisations and individuals that had built exceptionally supportive work environments. While these achievements might appear limited, the change in people’s attitudes has been revolutionary. Although the private and government sectors are steadily improving, the offices of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Ombudsmen in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, established to support the victims of this crime, have been working below expectation. Collectively, they have employed an insensitive working model that has failed to support victims by making unnecessary delays and failing to understand either the legislation or the issue.
The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) was re-established early last year under a revised Act. The revised legislation provided a stronger legal basis for the Commission, which is the national watch dog body on women’s issues. However, while the legislation provided autonomy for the Commission, the bureaucracy got its revenge by making the the passage of the implementing rules an unnecessarily long and drawn out affair. As a result, the impact this institutional reform is yet to be seen.
As the devolution aspects of the18th Amendment gather momentum, the provinces have been gearing up their new legislative agenda. Although women’s issues have not been seen as a major priority, there have been some commendable efforts. Sindh started off by passing its domestic violence bill.  Passage of this bill by a province was a bittersweet victory as civil society had failed for nine year to get it passed by the federal parliament. Balochistan followed suit, but with a weaker version. Nevertheless, we give them high marks for their intention and action as an amendment has been promised to fix some critical gaps in the text.
Despite world-wide attention on Pakistan, the amendment to the PPC that criminalized acid burning has not made much difference on the number of cases registered or convictions obtained during the last year. The reason is that this was supposed to be a set of two pieces of legislation, an amendment in the PPC, plus a comprehensive law that fully tackles the full challenge faced when filing a complaint, collecting evidence, and conducting a judicial inquiry. That comprehensive bill was never passed and now must approved by each province individually. Although one feels that In the face of the gravity of this crime, you might wonder who would oppose such a badly needed law, nevertheless the provincial governments have not yet considered it important enough to be taken up for a vote.
The implementation on the PPC amendment on anti-women practices, covering such crimes as forced marriage, exchanging women to resolve local conflicts and preventing women from inheriting their rightful share, has only seen limited results since being signed in December 2011.  Such issues, deeply rooted in the patriarchal nature of our society, have strong backing from the local social elite. Faced with such powerful resistance, the resolve of our state machinery quickly withers.  As with acid burning, domestic violence and rape, these are crimes are committed as an expression of power over women. These will not disappear merely because they are now illegal.  Their impact will be diminished only when our society condemns their perpetrators.
While reviewing the progress in recent years, one point stands out clearly: Implementation of pro-women laws, where it is done at all, results from the efforts of committed groups or individuals that push the process.  In many cases, these committed individuals are themselves complainants who have felt empowered by the new statutes, no matter how painful their journey might be.  These activists know they are cutting against the grain of our society, but they continue to struggle in order to reduce the pain our society inflicts on its own women. These activists are resolute in their efforts because the people in power, who should take it upon themselves to implement these laws, fail to do so because they are too busy resisting or covering their own tracks.



Women in political positions in the Parliaments of the world have almost doubled in the last 15 years. In 1997, Sweden was the only country in the world that had 40% women in their Parliament, and now there are more than ten countries with that number. About 30 countries have more than 30% women. The world average is about 21%. Pakistan ranks 57 out of 140 countries. Considering other extremely low our rankings are in areas of women’s empowerment and safety, at least this is one area we can boast about and celebrate on International Women’s Day. The top positions are taken by Rwanda at 56%, Andorra at 55% and Cuba at 45%, while Philippines and UK are close to Pakistan. USA, with its claims to be the greatest nation in the world and leader of gender equality, holds the 77th position.

The performance of our women Parliamentarians has been exceptional. They have headed significant Committees, proposed legislation, asked pertinent questions, performed well as Committee members.  They have been visible, hardworking and vocal.  Women were frequently seen on television representing their parties.

The Women’s Caucus clearly made a mark for being the first institutional mechanism to bring together women of all parties, enabling women to prove that they could go above party divisions when it came to pro women legislation.

By doing so, they have shown their solidarity with all women of the country rather than competing with each other as is so common among the male members.  We expect that the caucus will take on a wider range of issues in the next term,  but the women members made good use of it this time.

Although different forms of quota systems have pushed up the percentage of women in various political houses in the last decade, the number of directly elected women is also increasing. More than 100 countries now have quota systems, Saudi Arabia recently passing a 20% quota for their Consultative Assembly.

In most of the countries that have a quota system the results are mixed. The research shows that the elite of the countries try to by pass the quota regulations and then make excuses not to implement the rules properly. Some countries have worked out an incentive system for more effective implementation. In Burkina Faso, if a party elects 30% women their funding from the government goes up by half. In East Timor, more media time is given to parties that have more women.

In Pakistan, although parties make the lists of women to be selected on reserved seats with all seriousness tension remains between the male and female members. In the last term, several comments from men undermining women were heard as they considered them members without a constituency. This discriminatory attitude has to be dealt with within parties.  Many countries, like Tunisia, have quotas for party candidates. Fifty percent quota resulted in 20% seats in the elections. This quota system however has been manipulated more. Women are given seats that the party knows they would loose, which undermines the purpose of this quota.

Some parties do not give women tickets to run, saying they would be brought in through the party list so the opportunity should be given to a male candidate. They need to realize that quotas are only a transitional phase and are aimed at grooming women and getting men used to having them as their representatives. 

In Pakistan just as parties will be assessed on the level of women’s issues they bring up in their election campaign, they will also be assessed by how many women candidates they would field in their constituency.