By Zonia Yousuf Baltistani
In today’s development context the notion of women’s empowerment has replaced a more confrontational and political discourse of women’s rights. With major development frameworks, like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the demand for gender equality through women’s empowerment and inclusiveness has gained currency; the idea is to leave no one behind.
I believe this approach has transformed empowerment into a creative force; a resourceful power which is used to achieve and to accomplish. Scholars like Naila Kabeer, view empowerment in terms of the means that allow women to make strategic life choices: access to resources, enhanced voice and increased agency. In light of this understanding, how much (or little) has changed for women in politics? How empowered are women in politics in Pakistan?
It is safe to say that changes in the political arena have led to an increased number of resources that woman politicians have at their disposal. The Parliament itself, through an Act, created the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS), which provides research and capacity building services to all parliamentarians. Various workshops and trainings have been conducted by PIPS specifically for female parliamentarians to realize their leadership potentials and enhance their jurisdictive abilities.
The institute not only responds to research requests from parliamentarians but also aids them in the process of making informed legislative decisions by conducting comparative studies, offering bill drafting services, assisting in developing parliamentary committee reports, talking points, background papers and policy briefs. The institute conducts a Parliamentarians Orientation Program for newly elected members to familiarize them with the procedures of the parliament along with more specialized trainings such as annual pre and post budget seminars which aim to better equip the parliamentarians for deliberations on the budget. Female parliamentarians are equal participants in all activities. Further, the political parties in Pakistan are largely structured to have women wings as an inclusionary measure.
Policy changes leading to reserved seats for women, 10 per cent requirement of women’s voter turnout, five per cent reserved general seats for women, creation of gender-centric supporting bodies like the national and provincial Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses and the national and provincial Commissions on the Status of Women, have increased the participation of female politicians leading to more inclusion.
However, our research with 200 female parliamentarians (2013-2018) from the National Assembly, Senate and the Provincial Assemblies revealed that female parliamentarians continue to operate in hostile environments. There is still a considerable amount of silencing and exclusion that these women face within their parties as well as on the floor of the parliament. The following table describes findings from the survey indicating that women in politics are subject to various forms of sex- based discrimination and harassment:
Our study divulges that despite the available resources, female politicians continue to lack space and agency (excluding a few exceptions to the norm). The agency of women in Caucuses to legislate on women’s issues is constrained by party policies which is why they might not be able to vote in favor of progressive legislation for women. The unsuccessful attempt to pass the domestic violence bill in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the last government is one such example.
Despite the existence of women’s wings, female politicians are not adequately represented at decision making levels; most political parties do not have women as top leadership. Women wings are used as campaigning bodies for male candidates rather than training grounds for women candidates to run in their own right. The findings from the interviews indicate that women politicians aren’t treated at par with their male counterparts by the party leaders.
The dearth of voice and agency can be causally linked to an absence of accountability within political parties. Even though frameworks to ensure female participation exist, there is a lack of internal accountability mechanisms within political parties. For example, Ayesha Gulalai’s sexual harassment charges were never formally investigated within Parliament or her party. The concept of women’s empowerment, particularly within the political domain, needs to be coupled with the notions of transparency, accountability, democratic decision making and rule of law.