Saturday, September 15, 2007

Empowering women in Pakistani Politics

Empowering women in politics
By Anis Haroon: Dawn, September 15, 2007

AFTER May 12 — the day Karachi experienced brutal carnage — a number of conferences were held in the city to bring various political parties together. I had a chance to attend a few. It was surprising, in fact shocking, to see that in spite of a sizable presence of women in legislative bodies, their representation in these conferences was missing. Why? Were they not invited? Or do they not have any opinion of their own? Or are their views simply not counted?

On enquiring from the organisers, I failed to get a convincing reply. They were totally dismissive when I raised the issue of the missing female voices. Later, when I contacted some women office-bearers and legislators, I learnt that they had not been told about the meetings. Their male colleagues considered politics to be their domain. The women’s wings of the political parties are mobilised when a party needs to show its strength or when extra hands are needed for tedious electoral activities such as compiling voters’ lists, door-to-door canvassing or acting as polling agents.

But that is not what women want. A political activist, who attended the All Parties Women’s Conference organised by the Aurat Foundation last week in Karachi, said that she wanted the women’s wings of political parties to be made autonomous, financially independent and part of the decision-making process.

Some participants wanted the women’s wings to be abolished. However, the majority felt these should be retained but given decision-making powers. It was significant that women of different parties — from the treasury and the opposition — could engage in a positive dialogue and come up with a joint declaration.

In South Asia, power politics, especially the electoral process, is becoming increasingly violent. The extensive use of firearms and sophisticated weapons and the induction by political parties of criminal elements who resort to strong-arm tactics, often results in the terrorising and killing of innocent people.

The state has failed in its primary role of maintaining law and order and protecting the lives of citizens. In some cases, the state itself has become a major actor in the game of violence that is being played in the region.

Can women’s enhanced participation in politics make a difference? As an activist I would unhesitatingly say yes. We have documented histories of women from conflict-ridden zones of Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America which tell us how women have been cleaning up the mess created by bloody wars and have been rebuilding their societies.

Several examples can be quoted to show how women are consolidating themselves to form a ‘critical mass’. Of course, one should not draw the conclusion that all women are pacifist by nature. All one can conclude is that their concerns are different and they have displayed more passion for a peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue.

This was also reflected in the joint declaration issued by the conference, which says:

1- We demand a total ban on the use and display of arms by political parties. They should not use coercion or force to extract support or to suppress dissent.

2- Parties should hold regular elections to choose their office-bearers and should practise democratic norms and cultivate a culture of tolerance.

3- Parties should issue more tickets to women and also offer financial support for their election expenses.

4- They should disqualify all those members who use derogatory language and get involved in anti-women decisions through jirgas. Even if a party issues a ticket to such a person, the Election Commission should reject their nominations.

The women delegates were also united in demanding more space and an equal share for minorities in electoral politics. It was noted that though the joint electorate system had been restored in the last election, electoral rolls and polling stations in some areas are separate for the minorities. This makes them vulnerable to pressure and coercion from political parties. The Election Commission should take note of it.The prerequisite of a graduation degree for the candidates introduced in the last election is absurd. With a literacy rate of 29 per cent, women find themselves at a disadvantage. This academic requirement closes the door for those grassroots women who have experience and courage but no degree. This has served to strengthen the feudal political culture of Pakistan by enabling feudal leaders to have a proxy representation in parliament by getting their daughters, sisters or daughters-in-law elected.

For over 25 years, women activists have demanded 33 per cent of the seats in parliament. They have won only 17 per cent. Arguably, the role of women parliamentarians, their quality and effectiveness have been questioned, but it cannot be denied that they have made a positive impact as well. The record of the assemblies show that it is women who take their work seriously and always make the quorum. To my knowledge, whenever women’s issues have been raised in the assembly, a woman member has been the one to bring it up.

Take the example of the Sindh Assembly. During its tenure three bills were moved by the opposition members: the Domestic Violence against Women Bill, the Need for Shelters Bill and the Gender Harassment Bill. Women members were the sponsors of all of them. Unfortunately, these bills were not brought before the House. But that is another issue.

The entire tenure of the Assembly was marred by protests, polemics and polarisation, which reflects negatively on our political culture. The opposition is not allowed to play its role when it wants to. Our parliamentarians are not used to a democratic way of governance. They need to go through several elections and a continuity of democratic process to change their mindset.

The conference participants recognised the need for a cross-party caucus for women in order to fulfil their role of improving the lot of Pakistani women, besides changing attitudes dominant in men.

The women’s movement had not envisaged selective representation on reserved seats. As was provided for by the 1956 constitution, we have been lobbying for women’s constituencies where women parliamentarians should be elected directly by the voters. This method will give women politicians the experience of direct elections and also make them accountable to their constituents. It will release women from the apron strings of their parties and free them from male domination while creating space for independent women candidates.

The idea of direct elections is appealing but there is need for financial support by the party where it is required. It is also important to run a campaign for registering as many women voters as possible.

After all, 33 per cent of union councillors have been elected directly. In spite of their limitations and challenges, many of them have shown a lot of grit and skill. They have facilitated the construction of schools, roads, sewerage systems, dispensaries and parks. There are failures due to a rotten system but what some women have been able to do in the face of all kinds of hindrances deserves our recognition.

Women at the grassroots know their problems well. They have a lot of potential, and given an enabling environment can perform wonders. Some of the city councillors present at the conference demanded that they should also be picked up as candidates for the assemblies, since they have more experience working at the grassroots. I think this is a good idea. Political parties should consider them as potential candidates for the general seats in the next elections.

The immediate need is to end polarisation and create a culture of tolerance amongst the political parties. A cross-party women’s caucus is one platform which can at least initiate a dialogue towards that end. Civil society should support such efforts in spite of their disillusionment with the political parties.

The writer is the resident director of Aurat Foundation, Karachi.

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