Rethinking women’s role in Pakistan’s governance

ECP’s data of enlisted parties shows, only 6% of women hold leadership positions.

Women’s participation in Pakistani politics has, regrettably, remained on the periphery of the national discourse. Despite the implementation of affirmative action, which introduced women quota seats to legislatures since 2002, the full realisation of women’s participation and performance has eluded political stakeholders. One of the primary concerns is the pervasive male dominance within the political arena, including political parties and the formal structures governing the country.

Generally, parties use superficial lip service about women’s issues on their platforms that perpetuate gender disparities. According to ECP’s data of enlisted parties, only 6% of women hold leadership positions, and those in important roles often have familial ties with the male leadership. Moreover, many political parties lack internal accountability mechanisms controlled by male leaders, further contributing to a culture of harassment and discrimination. Faced with these challenges, women leaders and party workers often find it necessary to conform to traditional gender norms in public to avoid harassment, reinforcing the misconception that their presence in politics is a form of charity rather than a reflection of their competence.

Merely setting legal limits or introducing gender quotas to increase women’s participation has not really worked. Gender quotas often carry inherent assumptions about women, viewing them as a homogenous entity, negating their distinctive perspectives and diversity, including differences in class, ethnicity, religion and rural or urban origins. The prevalence of elite women in political structures, resulting from quotas, underscores the necessity of placing gender quotas within the context of diversity to empower women politically. There is also a dire need to develop rigorous selection criteria for women on reserved seats; otherwise, instead of exercising their own agency, these women are compelled to align with party agendas to appease the male leadership. Moreover, efforts are required to highlight the accomplishments of these women as in the past, they have outperformed their male counterparts in assemblies’ agenda setting.

The criteria for selecting women on reserved seats remain ambiguous, despite inclusion being a core agenda of successive governments. While the intent is documented, the practice has fallen short. The election to reserved seats depends heavily on male leadership nominations, overlooking merit and performance. Consequently, women representatives’ exceptional contributions during previous tenures are not considered criteria for their selection in subsequent assemblies.

Positive developments in the electoral framework, such as measures to increase women’s voter registration and a 5% quota for women candidates within political parties, have been introduced in the recent past. However, these initiatives have not proven effective in ensuring greater women’s participation as candidates and voters. Sex-disaggregated voter turnout records and the potential voiding of election results in constituencies with less than 10% women turnout have not translated into substantial change.

Realising the need for change and introspection, particularly within political parties, is crucial for ensuring women’s participation as leaders and voters. The active role of women can be a game-changer in any constituency, but the continued ignorance of their potential has hindered progress. To address these issues in the longer run, Pakistan can learn from other global south countries that have successfully provided an enabling space for women in all spheres of life, contributing significantly to their development. Introducing a merit- and performance-based formula for the inclusion of women in the legislature is also a necessary step towards achieving true gender parity in Pakistani politics. Moreover, the next Parliament must thoroughly consider the integration of more gender-balanced measures into the electoral framework — measures that genuinely foster women’s participation. Without a steadfast commitment and an expanded scope, we are likely to observe persistently low levels of participation and inclusion of women in successive electoral cycles.

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