Although women comprise 48.54 per cent of the total population in Pakistan, their perspective is missing in national policies, laws, and institutions. Legal rights and opportunities to contribute to the national progress are systematically restricted for women, especially on issues that disproportionately harm them – rape, harassment, and domestic violence. To achieve a more balanced approach, we must understand the nuances of a ‘gendered’ perspective and the challenges to promoting gender awareness in Pakistan.
The gender gap in Pakistan is high along key indicators and aspects of life – health disparity, education disparity, economic disparity, legal disparity, political disparity and cultural disparity. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 published by the World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranked 153rd out of 156 countries on the gender parity index, only above Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. This is alarming. With fewer women in decision-making positions, there is a significant lack of gender perspective.
Such a lens is about bringing women’s experiences into decision-making to ensure that laws, policies, rules and regulations have a greater impact in achieving their objectives. A ‘gender-aware’ perspective considers how gender-based discrimination shapes the immediate needs, as well as the long-term interests, of both women and men.
In a policy context, such a perspective makes women’s as well as men’s concerns an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally and gender-based inequalities are not perpetuated.
In Pakistan, there are multiple challenges involving assumptions and mindsets about women. It is generally assumed that women are weak, both physically and intellectually; that women are poor administrators and cannot make effective decisions; that they are temperamental and emotional. In the workplace, men frequently address women as sisters and daughters and fail to recognize them as equal colleagues. How long should we make these assumptions and presumptions about women when there is no scientific basis for them? The solution lies at many levels but educating the mindset, creating more opportunities and reducing stereotypes is a start.
Women are denied equal opportunities in all spheres of life despite our constitution providing for the equality of citizens (Article 25) and Pakistan’s formal legal acceptance of various international conventions. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women states that “State parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government” (Article 7).
Pakistan is also a signatory to the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo 1994 as well as the UN Conference on Women in Beijing 1995. Pakistan has also signed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals, which set out gender equality as a key goal. Pakistan, having signed these international instruments, is obliged to promote gender equality.
To do this, three steps are worth highlighting. First, women should be given adequate representation in the legislature, executive, and the judiciary so that women’s perspective is reflected in laws, policies, and judicial decisions. Existing quotas in the provincial and federal legislature and government jobs, for example, should change or be supplemented with other policies giving representation to women proportionate to their population in Pakistan. A mere quota does not increase or improve representation. There have to be structural and institutional changes to make equality substantive. Representation of women based on open merit and population would strengthen democracy, promote good governance and improve the quality of justice.
Second, women should have due representation on key bodies, which make decisions regarding the appointment of judges and civil servants and the regulation of corporate entities such as the Judicial Commission of Pakistan as well as statutory bodies like the federal and provincial Public Service Commissions and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.
Third, women should have administrative power– – or example, in terms of dealing with different government departments, postings and transfers, budgets and accounts etc. Administrative experience would enable women to contribute more effectively to public service and thus national development.
The stories of Benazir Bhutto, General Nigar Johar Khan, and Justice Ayesha Malik show that women can perform as well as men. It is unfortunate how we have allowed just a few women the opportunity to rise to high ranks. But, to make Pakistan stronger, we have to move from the few to the many.
It is worth recalling the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah: “No nation can ever be worthy of its existence that cannot take its women along with the men. No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of the women.”
We often fail to appreciate this third power. How can any law, policy, or decision be effective without including women’s perspectives? Women judges, for example, can help promote a gender-aware perspective by writing gender-sensitive judgments like the Sadaf Aziz case in which the two-finger test and the hymen test in sexual abuse or rape cases were declared unconstitutional, discriminatory, invasive and an infringement on the privacy of a woman to her body, blatant violation of the dignity of a woman, and devoid of any legal, scientific or medical basis.
Men must support women. Taboos and traditions have to give way to innovation and creativity. The ability and merit of women must be recognized not as a concession but as a matter of fundamental right. The government should introduce more gender-responsive policies and initiatives. Both men and women’s perspectives should be appreciated, equally, to produce a balanced gender perspective in Pakistan.
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.