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1 Feb 2022

The Great Alliance - The News
By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

While the number of women parliamentarians in Pakistan has increased over the years, it is still not enough. At present, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the number of women parliamentarians is still quite low – only 20 per cent of women parliamentarians are members of the National Assembly (NA) and only 6 per cent head committees.

Do women in public office make a difference? Studies have been conducted where it examines the impact women legislatoOne such organisation that is working towards the cause is Sustainable Social Development Organisation (SSDO) led by Kausar Abbas, who has started an initiative with women parliamentarians in Sindh and Punjab. Abbas’s SSDO has brought together women from Sindh and Punjab for the time being to discuss serious issues faced by women in Pakistan and to find workable solutions.

More women in parliament may be a good thing as an HRCP report issued in 2020 revealed that the women parliamentarians outperformed their male colleagues during the period August 2018 - Aug 2020. It would be interesting to see what they could achieve if there were more women in parliament and heading more committees.

Women parliamentarians are not just tokens in the assemblies to follow their parties’ narrative; many are quite active in the assemblies. They work across party lines on important issues and support bills that are pro-women and society. SSDO is working on similar have on overall legislative policy. Findings of one such study reveal that women in states with the highest percentages of female representatives introduce and pass more priority bills dealing with issues of women, children, and families than men in their states and more than their female counterparts in low representation legislatures. Moreover, women can successfully diffuse their priorities throughout the legislative process in one or two ways: through high percentages of women in office or through the presence of a formal women’s legislative caucus. These findings suggest that women do indeed make a difference and that their capacity to do so is related to the level of support from colleagues.

“I envision a better society in which an institutionalised system of social development exists and citizens are enjoying their social, political and economic rights. I want to make sure citizens’ rights are given through purposeful and responsive legislation, law enactment, stakeholder empowerment, good governance, and responsive service delivery,” shares Kausar Abbas.

Our government and members of parliament need to be monitored by independent organisations and the media. SSDO monitors the performance of the government and opposition and gives members of different sides an opportunity and platform to get together and have discussions on important topics. They have organised several events in which women parliamentarians from Sindh and Punjab visited each other’s provinces to connect on a neutral platform. They talked about different issues faced by the women of Pakistan and possible workable solutions through meetings, lobbying, awareness campaigns.

Uzma Kardar, Chairperson of the Punjab Assembly Standing Committee of Gender Mainstreaming (Women Development) signed an MOU here with SSDO in June 2020 to establish a Women Peace Council (WPC) to work and promote sustainable peace in the province at the grassroots level. Moreover, in September 2021, SSDO organised an event ‘Inter-Parliamentary Exchange of Punjab Assembly to Sindh on Peace & Sustainable Development - Strengthening SDGs Task Force for Building Peace in Pakistan’ in Islamabad and Karachi. Both sessions were attended by women parliamentarians from Punjab and Sindh, and they spoke on mutual issues across party lines.

Prominent women parliamentarians were part of these important sessions and many committees and focus groups were created so that they could keep in contact and work on specific points.

During the two-day event held in Karachi, attended by Punjab’s parliamentarians, Uzma Kardar expressed her views. “We need to highlight a soft and better image of Pakistan in the world by showcasing the good things happening in the society. Pakistani women are very brave, hardworking and they can achieve anything,” says Uzma. “We need to tell the world that things are not as bleak, things are improving in Pakistan. SSDO has given us, women in parliament, a good platform to be able to come together across party lines and work together on important issues.”

She adds that women are the basis of the society and it is through them that we can bring a great change. “Women play a larger role here. They are capable of bringing the intrinsic social changes that will help make a stronger and peaceful society.”

Punjab’s women parliamentarians were excited to discuss and work with their counterparts in Sindh and other provinces. They saw this as a good opportunity where work could begin simultaneously at the grassroots-level in all provinces. If there were a pro-woman bill presented in the assemblies, then it would be with the consensus of all women parliamentarians; and that could eventually become law.

While speaking about the WPC, Uzma informs that it would also help increase women’s participation from different backgrounds to work on important issues. “Giving women awareness and support would help them come to workable solutions to these issues. WPC’s main aim is to increase women’s participation from all fields of life focusing on peace, development and resilience against violence and extremism in society.”

With more women in the parliament, Pakistan will eventually see a change in the lives of the women who make almost half of the country’s population. While people like Uzma Kardar and Kausar Abbas are working on improving the situation for women and children in general, one organisation alone cannot be expected to tackle this huge problem. They need the support of the government to work on important issues and build a bridge between society and government and give the much-needed impetus.

For instance, violence against women and girls is one of the most systematic, widespread human rights violations worldwide. Over the years, Pakistani women have struggled and continue to struggle against injustices which are embedded in unequal power dynamics reinforced by harmful social norms or inequality under the law. It is not only the responsibility of an NGO to try to find solutions for important issues like violence against women and girls. These organisations can provide a neutral platform for women parliamentarians but there is still a lot to be done to move ahead. And this can only be achieved if the government supports such initiatives.

One such entity is the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW). A number of women parliamentarians are already working with the NCSW but there needs to be more commitment to this institution. The NCSW is relatively new and only came into existence in 2021 through a presidential ordinance. But it is being headed by an experienced person who has decades of experience working with poor and marginalised communities.

Nilofar Bakhtiar joined NCSW as chairperson in July 2021. She has worked extensively on gender justice and empowerment; gender equality and violence against women. She is the right person to find workable solutions with women parliamentarians and organisations like SSDO.

Her experience and guidance can help the assemblies to see issues through the gender lens and understand that every issue needs a unique solution. And who better to give this solution but women themselves.

The NCSW’s main objective is to improve the state of women in Pakistan and empower them by examining and reviewing laws, policies, and programmes. It monitors the implementation of laws for the protection and empowerment of women; and to facilitate the government in the implementation of international instruments and obligations. Nilofar Bakhtiar has the experience and resources when it comes to gender inequality and violence against women.

Speaking at a meeting in Karachi recently, Chairperson NCSW Nilofar Bakhtiar highlighted that the commission represented diversity in Pakistan and has been working towards realising gender equality in the public and private spheres. “The Commission’s core work is central to the principles of gender equality and empowerment as enshrined in the Constitution. It not only grants equality to women but also empowers the State to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favour of girls and women. Hence, The NCSW Act 2012 gives the Commission the powers to seek and receive information, data or documents from any official source and powers of a civil court to enforce the attendance of any person and production of documents.”

In the past two years, Pakistan has witnessed several cases of violent crimes, especially harassment, against women and children. In light of this, the Commission is committed to promoting a dignified working environment for all workers so they can work without fear of sexual harassment, abuse, and intimidation. They have no tolerance for harassment of any kind, and they are advocating for the ratification of ILO convention C-190 (the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment) to end violence and harassment at work.

If powerful women like Uzma Kardar and dynamic women like Nilofar Bakhtiar engage with women from different backgrounds at the grassroots-level, gender issues like violence against women and girls can move forward to a resolution. They can take the grievances of the real woman to the assemblies, amplify their voices and move towards finding permanent solutions that don’t just look good on paper but provide justice to all women.

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