The Good News
While women’s representation in Pakistan’s federal parliament has significantly increased in the past two decades, due to lack of implementation of the quota the full potential of the quota is still yet to be realised. Compared to only 1.8% of members in 1995, women accounted for an aggregate of 20.7% of the total membership of National Assembly and the Senate in 2015. Women parliamentarians have shown consistently excellent performance in the two houses with most recent reports highlighting their superior performance when juxtaposed to the performance of their male counterparts in almost all elected houses. Reserved seats are seen as a temporary special measure aimed at cultivating a culture where women’s participation in political affairs of a state is eventually normalised. However, they have run into two problems in Pakistan.
The Bad News
The first problem is observed with regards to the indirect election system used to elect women on the reserved seats. Under the system, political parties are allotted women’s reserved seats in proportion to the number of general seats they win through direct elections. This setup makes the women’s reserved seats dependent on the winning and losing of candidates of political parties, mostly male members, in general elections. As a result, women elected on these seats are often considered without a constituency and hence lesser in status compared to their male counterparts.The system also gives parties, rather than voters, more control over women elected on the reserved seats. Therefore, women chosen on such seats often feel more accountable to their parties than to the voters. With such issues involved in the reserved seats, women rights groups and parliamentarians have been demanding a revision in the reserved seats’ setup. The European Union’s Election Observation Mission to Pakistan’s 2013 General Elections (EU EOM 2013) had recommended reviewing “the system of reserved seats for women, in line with UN General Assembly Resolution 66/130 which calls on countries to review the differential impact on their electoral systems on the political participation of women.” In Pakistan’s context, the differential impact of reserved seats is evident from the problem highlighted above.
Secondly, the presence of reserved seats for women undermines their representation on general seats. Parties often consider that women can be elected through reserved seats, hence they tend to award general seat tickets to men, not realising that reserved seats are a temporary measure and women deserve equal treatment on the general seats as well. Part of this tendency is grounded in the patriarchal mindset that women cannot run campaigns; hence, it’s best for them to represent through reserved seats.
In 2013 general elections, more women contested on general seats than ever before, but a good number of them ran as independent candidates. Besides, the number of women elected on general seats dropped compared to 2008 (nine women were elected on general seats in 2013 compared to 16 in 2008). On the other hand, women’s appointment within ministerial and other vital public offices remains insignificant.
The Way Forward
Pakistan has made substantial progress in increasing women’s political participation. While it still needs to make efforts to meet UN target by having 30% women represented in elected houses and public offices, the efforts thus made so far are encouraging. The introduction of 5% quota on general seats is a significant milestone. However, it can only be translated into meaningful results if implemented correctly. In this regard, the Election Commission of Pakistan, political parties, women’s rights commissions, civil society and media need to play an important role as highlighted in this paper. While in the short-term, efforts have to be concentrated on 2018 general elections, a long-term plan and strategy is required to promote a culture that enables greater participation of women at all levels across all key institutions of the country.