Gendering change

Jan RoyallJan Royall reflects on her recent visit to Pakistan, and a few lessons for the UK in promoting the interests of women

I recently went on a short but eye-opening visit to Pakistan, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). It’s a great country, where some inspirational women are working in Parliament and NGOs, in communities and in the home to lift people out of poverty and ensure a more equal society.

We were in Islamabad for discussions with members of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC), which brings together parliamentarians from all parties to work together for women’s development, empowerment and emancipation. They have had some stunning successes in getting rid of deeply discriminatory laws, like the Hudood Ordinance – under which thousands of women were imprisoned if raped or suspected of adultery. They have produced and passed laws against acid throwing, stove burning and sexual harassment. And they have draft laws in the pipeline on domestic violence and other issues of critical importance to women.

Working with civil society organisations like the National Commission on the Status of Women, the Caucus has given women a powerful voice in Pakistan’s national and regional parliaments. The guiding force behind it all is Dr Fehmida Mirza, the Speaker of the National Assembly, and the first Muslim woman in the world to hold such office.  

The Caucus has great strength that comes not only from unity and clarity of purpose but also the historic number of women in Parliament – the result of a quota system that has been, in the words of many Pakistani men and women that I met, “transformative”. We have much to learn from the way in which they work. Likewise the National Commission; which, amongst its many roles, looks at the impact of legislation on women. 

The latter’s importance and influence was especially striking in view of the abolition of the Women’s National Commission in the UK, and the Coalition’s current assault on the powers of the EHRC. In a developing, deeply patriarchal country such as Pakistan, the National Commission embrace the proper scrutiny of law from a woman’s perspective; while in our developed, liberal democracy with its proud record in equality, Ministers seem to be afraid of independent scrutiny. 

Naturally, the security situation came into our discussions. There is clear recognition that women’s real economic empowerment in Pakistan is dependent on the country’s economic success, and a prerequisite for increased trade and investment is security. We were only allowed to visit one DFID funded project in Pakistan, where the department is doing a huge amount, working with partners to increase education and health provision whilst reducing poverty. But apart from this, and the fact that some Pakistani colleagues were unable to get to Islamabad, it was a good time to be there. 

Later this month a general election will be called and, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, there should be a peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another. Although sectarian violence and continued terror threats will make voting difficult in some areas, the election must be free, fair, transparent and properly monitored.

Sadly, it is already clear that at least 12 million women will not be able to participate – for the simple reason that they don’t have identity cards and can’t register to vote. This is an affront to democracy and a demonstration of the journey still to be travelled.  There are some fine laws on the statute book, thanks to inspirational women parliamentarians and leaders in civil society. But implementation requires a change of mind-set and culture.

The relationship between British and Pakistani women parliamentarians will continue, nurtured by the CPA – and we hope also to be joined by colleagues from Afghanistan and India. There is much to discuss, best practice to be shared and struggles in which we have common cause. In Pakistan they are working to ensure there are women at all levels of the judiciary; while in our own country, only one of the twelve Justices of the Supreme Court is female. 

Indeed, when three new Justices were recently appointed to replace three who were retiring, all of them were men. Need I say more?

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords

Published 5th March 2013

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