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8 March Women’s Day: Have quotas helped women Parliamentarians?

Pursuing politics is not an easy path for Pakistani women. We speak to five parliamentarians to determine how important are reserve quotas to increasing women's participation in politics. Zartaj Gul Wazir (PTI), Shaista Pervaiz Malik (PML-N), Nafisa Shah (PPP), Mehnaz Aziz (PML-N) and Kanwal Shauzab (PTI) share their thoughts.

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Zartaj Gul Wazir, Minister of State for Climate Change

I acknowledge and appreciate whosoever created reserved seats for women in the parliament even if people call him a dictator. At least we have women representation in the parliament now. We need to bear in mind that women face countless difficulties while trying to obtain tickets for general seats from their political parties.

Mostly, they are forced to contest elections in difficult areas/ constituencies – or compelled towards the reserved seats. But even then, the lack of funds available with women candidates makes the election process more difficult for them. Unlike their male counterparts, women who are given party tickets to contest elections find it difficult to get the MPA panels.

I would recommend that reserved seats for women should remain intact but the seatholders should be decided either through an election or on the basis of general election representation on reserved seats from districts; the district with the most general representation should be given the reserved seat.

When the general election seat is secured from one district, the reserved seat should not be given to another district. I believe the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) decision to fix five percent compulsory seats by the political parties for women is a welcome measure.

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Political parties should follow ECP’s directions through meaningful actions; they should give 5 percent seats from good constituencies to women candidates on general tickets and also make available MPA panels and funds for women politicians. Youth leaders and women should particularly be promoted to contest general elections through effective party policies and actions.

Party leaders should follow Prime Minister Imran Khan in this regard, how he broke stereotypes and gave tickets to young leaders making them Cabinet members. Political parties should give reserved seats to party workers rather than relatives and dynasties. In the 2018 general elections, I thoroughly enjoyed my public win and aspire to contest general elections in the future as well.

However, it doesn’t mean I won’t support my reserved seats fellows – especially the ones who are actively contributing in the parliament. PM Imran Khan deserves to be praised for offering the most key positions of parliamentary secretaries to women parliamentarians on reserved seats.

Shaista Pervaiz Malik, Member of National Assembly, PML-N

Democracy involves the equal access and full participation of both women and men in all areas and at all levels of public life, especially in decision-making positions. Both the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recommend that governments adopt quotas as temporary special measures to increase the number of women in both appointive and elective positions in local and national levels of government.

It has been realized by social rights activists that democracy cannot be achieved without the equal participation of women and men in the legislative process. The legislative and political quota is one of the tools through which political discrimination can be diminished and women can be mainstreamed into politics. Numerous studies have been conducted in several countries which indicate that quotas, as one of the means for change, help women in acquiring influence in the political sphere.

In Pakistan, women representation in the assemblies had become dismally low. The proportion of women representation fell to just 3.2 percent in the National Assembly elected in 1997. 2.4 % in the Senate and only 0.4 percent overall in the four provincial assemblies. It became a matter of great concern for human rights organizations in general and women rights groups in particular.

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It was in this environment that the military government of General Pervez Musharraf agreed to enhance women’s representation. However, the literature suggests that initiative was taken due to external pressure of International Women Rights Organizations, donors, and due to Pakistan’s ratification of international treaties. At each level, there was a council: Zila, Tehsil/Town, and Union, each of which had 33 percent reserved seats for women.

Moreover, 60 seats were reserved for women in the national and provincial assemblies. In Pakistan, there was a dire need and demand for women reserve seats because women were being exploited in the name of custom and culture, and women rights were interpreted through the religious cover. Another challenging concern was the disagreement that existed between women-related cultural practices and Islamic practices.

Moreover, factors like the country’s unstable democratic history, low socio-economic development, and strong identity as an Islamic Republic are responsible for low levels of women’s political representation which further reinstated the need for reserve seats. Women’s political participation has been an important area of funding and programmatic focus within the international donor community.

Pakistan’s Sustainable Development Goals include a continued commitment to achieving gender equality, and thus demands for women representation in the legislative assembly, towards which quota-based representation is the first step. Yet, after the 2018 general elections, fewer women were elected on general seats than before.

This was despite a 2017 electoral reform mandating political parties to grant five percent of their tickets for general seats to women, a reform that was supported by activists, women legislators, and international donor organizations providing support to democratic processes. In many areas, women were barred from contesting elections, received death, rape, and kidnapping threats in case of filing nomination papers.

In the majority of cases, women were given tickets on unwinnable seats and there was no support or training extended towards them by the political parties. Moreover, many women lack economic resources to contest elections on general seats. Women’s participation cannot be effective unless there is progressive socio-cultural change, which should be initiated through a bottom-up approach.

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This means firstly women must be empowered socially and economically. Only then can women play progressive and authoritative roles in the political system. Currently, political indicators of women’s political empowerment are due entirely to top-down approaches, like the quota, which are effected through legislative measures.

However, during the recent by-elections 2021, an example has been set by PML (N) where it gave party tickets to two women for contesting on general seats. Despite reserved seats and the electoral reforms process, women’s representation in the legislative houses is below 20%. The Elections Act 2017 mandates political parties to allocate five percent tickets for general seats to women. However, the reform did not result in an unprecedented number of women in parliament.

To combat these challenges, concerted efforts are required by different stakeholders including relevant government institutions, political parties, and civil society. Effective implementation of the pro-women policies especially The Election 2017, to enhance women’s representation and leadership within political parties and in the parliament are needed along with conservative and patriarchal socio-cultural norms prevailing in the country.

Nafisa Shah, Member of National Assembly, PPP

One of the most critical policy questions today is what kind of political power women have in this country, as voters, policymakers, and political activists? By and large, women supported women’s reserved seats as the minimum policy tool that made them visible and their voices important. The 17 percent constitutional quota in Parliament has not only ensured women’s presence and visibility, but the performance of the Parliament generally has improved.

However, quotas are and must be temporary and enabling instruments in the Parliament and not the end in itself. It has been more than 20 years since the 17 percent constitutional quota was introduced. Yet, if that quota is removed, the number of women selected by the parties to contest elections will come down to a mere four or five percent, with an even lesser percent winning. Today, even after 20 years, only eight women are on elected seats in the National Assembly.

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Moreover, quotas have also led to discrimination in Parliament. A clear demarcation between those elected on reserved seats and those on a general seat has been made while allocating funds, or political offices, further marginalizing women in the Parliament. In addition, I am not sure to what extent this has led to the empowerment of women generally, as women and girls continue to lag behind in education, health, access to credit – remaining the most unequal section of society.

It is now felt that there is a need to debate whether the present form of quotas addresses the issue of representation adequately. At the same time, there is a need to explore how political parties can be sensitized to the issues of representation of women and to debate whether the present form of indirect representation provided to women is strengthening women’s participation in politics on a sustainable basis.

It is feared that quotas may make the political parties complacent and unwilling to provide the party platform to women to contest direct elections. Some countries have taken measures to ensure that political parties provide adequate seats to women politicians to contest elections on winnable seats.

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To conclude, while quotas are important in addressing women’s exclusion from the public political sphere, they can only form one part of a multi-faceted strategy for empowering women. For instance, the electoral system has to become more favorable to women’s representation. We need to further debate whether the mechanism of proportionate representation is the best form or that reserved seats should be constituency-based, as is the case in some countries.

Kanwal Shauzab, Member of National Assembly, PTI

Had the quota system for women during General Musharraf’s rule not been introduced, it would have been difficult for women to participate in the elections due to several reasons but most importantly, because women are considered commodities, unless they come from families that have a political background. The average professional woman is not encouraged to join the political field.

A further shift can be observed because of a rule the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) put forward, Section 206 of the Elections Act, 2017, which bounds every political party to ensure 5 percent of women are awarded tickets to contest in the open elections. However, unfortunately, women are only awarded losing seats, so that the parties can say they gave the tickets to women and therefore do not have to face the restrictions put forward by the ECP, according to which the non-compliant parties will not be allotted their party symbol.

I still do not think that women will be given winning seats this time because women without political backing are hardly involved in decision-making or given key positions by their parties. Even in Assemblies, elected members discriminate against women who are elected on reserved seats. In India, even though their problems are similar to ours, their democratic practices are old.

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Women there can easily contest; therefore, it does not take long for people to accept it as the norm if something is regularly practiced. In Pakistan, if together with the ECP, all the parties make amendments in the commission’s rule and increase the percentage to 10 percent, every party will be bound to comply, and once women start participating through the electoral process, their acceptability in the assemblies will begin to increase.

I am hopeful this will be practiced in the future. Law-making should be such that it is woman empowering in the truest sense. Without economic empowerment and decision-making powers, women empowerment is next to impossible.

Mehnaz Akbar Aziz, Member of National Assembly, PML-N

I commend the State of Pakistan to ensure affirmative action on women’s representation in the political arena. Pakistan saw an unprecedented swing in women’s representation in the political arena from orthodox to modernity by the introduction of reserved seat quotas through devolution of power to local legislative seats which were reflected in the National Assembly in 2002.

Today, women legislators in Pakistan are institutionalized in Parliament and the political process. They actively participate in parliamentary committees and other Assembly businesses – especially, if we compare the performance of male parliamentarians whose input on women and children-specific issues has been extremely low. Moreover, women lead by a whopping 50 percent when it comes to laying private members’ bills.

A few important recent bills passed or in the pipeline include, Zainab Alert Response and Recovery Act 2020, the ICT Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2020, and Prohibition of Corporal Punishment 2020. However, the Parliament still remains, to a large extent, male-dominated; only 17% of reserved seats are for women and only eight were elected through direct elections in 2018.

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The ideal scenario is 50% representation, but even our neighboring country India hasn’t been able to boost women representation in Parliament to that scale. Going a step further, the Election Commission of Pakistan – bearing in mind the rural areas where women are discouraged from voting – has made 10 percent women participation mandatory, for a voting process to be accepted. I endorse the continuation of the reserved seats while advocating for more tickets on General Seats for women.

The overnight affirmative action leapfrog cannot be backtracked, as it is extremely important for 50 percent of our population. It’s pertinent to mention that women parliamentarians have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to excel in the legislative and political field. Unfortunately, they repeatedly have to prove their rationale for representation.

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