Woes of women in legislatures

Ever since women’s reserved seats have been introduced in the legislative houses, women occupying these seats have become a thorn in many eyes. Not a day has passed when in the corridors of the parliament sarcastic remarks aren’t heard. Men from across the parties are routinely heard sneering at women on reserved seats for being ‘non-representative’ and many a times for being ‘non-productive’. Men and women who come to the legislative houses after winning general elections often belittle women on reserved seats on public forum. Those from even progressive sections of media and general society habitually disparage the contribution and role of women parliamentarians on reserved seats. The rest keep reminding how women should be grateful to a ‘benign’ military ruler for ‘33% quota’ for women.
This constitutes a terrible set of misconceptions and misinformation regarding the quota system and the women who become part of country’s law-making machinery as a result of this quota system. Firstly, the myth about a gift of ‘33% quota’ by a ‘benign’ dictator needs to be busted once and for all.
Many of these critics of women on reserved seats of parliament tend to overlook the fact that these reserved seats had been already on the agenda ever since Pakistan’s Prime Minister participated in the Beijing Platform for Action Fourth World Conference in 1995. The participating governments had signed the Declaration that included the country commitments for quota seats in parliaments of these countries. Civil society and women’s rights movement in Pakistan had been advocating and lobbying for women’s reserved seats quite aggressively since 1995.
Unfortunately, the incumbent government at that time did not have enough numbers in the parliament to affect a change in the constitution. The government that came in 1996, however, had comfortable numbers to do that. It took nearly three more years for the women’s rights activists to convince the federal and provincial legislatures to adopt the resolutions for complying with this international commitment. By September 1999, Punjab and Sindh Assemblies had adopted the resolutions while in Balochistan and National Assembly, the resolutions were moved and in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (then NWFP) Assembly MPAs had agreed to move the resolution. After they were adopted across the board, the next step would have been to introduce a constitutional amendment bill for reserved seats. Point to be noted here is, all these resolutions spoke for a 33% reserved seats.
By then, domestic demand from civil society as well as international pressure for compliance of Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was mounting immensely. There comes the military dictator who had to show compliance to the commitments Pakistan had made long time ago, but reduces the quota to 17% at provincial and federal levels and yet snatches all the credit.
The quota was shrewdly kept in ‘under-control’ limits in federal and provincial legislatures while sanctioning a 33% quota in local governments. The number that was repeated endlessly in media as well as at national and international public forums was ‘33%’. Resultantly, this is the number that is wrongly propagated to be in force in the assemblies. The actual number of reserved seats remains, however, exactly half of it, i.e., 17%.
The devil lies in the detail of the modality for filling these reserved seats. To allow an easy elite capture, which is not very difficult in a liberal democracy even through direct elections, the reserved seats were kept under the control of political party leaders by giving them the sole power to decide who would sit on these seats. Proportional representation, as is understood for these seats, brings number of women from winning political parties according to their general seats won. The contesting political parties submit a list of their nominee women after a random headhunting based on parties’ leaders’ (mostly male) perception.
Like reserved seats on minorities, women selected for these gender quota seats remain under the unsaid, unwritten duress of party leaders. Worse, when they come to the Houses, they face glaring discrimination at all levels. In the National Assembly mandate of 2002-2007, it was routinely seen that women were not allowed to speak on the floor of the House. Their Questions and Points of Orders would be put at the bottom of the list while the Chair would repeatedly say that these women since don’t represent a constituency, can afford to wait before all the constituency-holders speak.
Things changed to a surprisingly better trend in previous mandate from 2008 – 2013, which remains at that pace in the current mandate as far as opportunity to speak on the floor of the House is concerned. The discrimination on other fronts however, remains at the same level. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly, development funds for reserved seats women were slashed to less than one third compared to their male colleagues.
Development funds, which are in them a debatable concept, apparently are not the only way to discriminate against women members. Recently I discovered that in the Punjab assembly, many women members are not given mandatory residences to stay while the assembly is in session. In the absence of this facility, which is enjoyed by their male colleagues with pomp and glory, it becomes impossibly difficult for women who come from far-flung areas of the Province to attend the session. One hopes that this can be corrected with due diligence and on priority basis.
This discrimination is in addition to regular jabs from men and women who won on general seats, to women on reserved seats for being ‘non-representative’. Just before the start of a parliamentary party meeting of a popular party, I overheard a woman member complaining to her male colleague for always being late or absent in these meetings while all the women were regular and dot on time. “We are busy people, have to work a lot in our constituencies. We are not here killing time like reserved seat women” was how that male member retorted back.
Women members, despite all these hurdles and barriers, have performed amazingly well since 2008. According to the end-of the-mandate report released by the National Assembly in March 2013, around 20% women members carried approximately 60% burden of the business of the House. According to a report recently released by FAFEN, the statistics have gone down considerably, which is a point of extreme worry because it indicates that enabling environment for women to perform has deteriorated considerably.
If one good thing has happened over the last few months, it is the formation of Women’s Parliamentary Caucuses in all the Provincial Assemblies and at federal level. In the federal Parliament, the Caucus was formed during the previous mandate with sheer commitment of all the women present in the House and personal interest taken by then-speaker Dr. Fahmeeda Mirza. These Caucuses demonstrate women members’ resolve to work together beyond their party agendas and not letting the parties divide them when it comes to women’s issues. A welcome and mature step that has been much desired and strongly advocated by the women’s rights activists for a long time.
With federal Caucus planning a National Convention of Women Parliamentarians from all houses; Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Caucus contemplating to strongly stand up against discrimination against them; Caucus in Sindh gearing up to launch their strategic plan for the term; Caucus in Balochistan having started dynamic linkages building process; Punjab Caucus having launched its strategic agenda for next four years and members of former Caucus having established the Organization of Women in Politics and Parliament involving women from almost all political parties in the parliament in former tenure, this is an impressive start.
Go ahead ladies and keep making us proud!

The writer is an Islamabad based campaigner for human rights and works on parliamentary strengthening and democratic governance.


Tweets at:@marvisirmed

The writer is an Islamabad based freelance columnist. She can be contacted at marvisirmed@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter

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