Women set to make breakthrough in December elections

For the first time in the history of Pakistan, an unprecedented number of women have been given the opportunity to stand for direct election in the lowest tier of government - the union councils - when polling begins on 31 December. Despite scepticism that many women would accept the challenge, initial reports look favourable. For those who are elected on the eve of the New Year, a bigger challenge awaits them - that of proving their effectiveness.

Although political seats have been reserved for women at various stages in Pakistan’s history, women were never directly elected: they were nominated by directly elected men. Women selected in this way had no constituency base and were usually marginalised. Few were able to perform an active role in politics. When the present military government came to power in October 1999, it announced a return to democracy, starting with a devolution of power at the local level.

According to this devolution plan, 33 percent, or some 42,000 seats in the union councils, would be reserved for women through direct election. The government declared that in the first phase, polls would be held in 18 districts of Pakistan on 31 December, with the country’s remaining 88 districts to be phased in by July 2001. Elections would subsequently be held at the provincial and federal levels, with the reforms completed by 12 October 2002 - the limit set by Pakistan’s Supreme Court for the establishment of constitutional order and change of government.

Action to motivate women

Soon after the devolution plan was announced, a coalition of national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), led by the Aurat Foundation, embarked on an ambitious campaign to motivate women in rural and urban communities to stand as candidates, and to exercise their vote. In 1999, women held only eight out of a total of 764 seats in the senate, national assembly and provincial assemblies combined.
Those women, who came in on reserved seats, were dubbed “rubber stamps” in the hands of male politicians, having neither the knowledge nor experience necessary to make any qualitative contribution. Women’s rights activists criticised them for not properly promoting women’s issues. Even Benazir Bhutto, who as prime minister twice was in a position to make a significant difference, was criticised for not doing enough to create conditions for women’s empowerment.

The UN and NGOs, which are working to mobilise women, plan to change this. They see the forthcoming elections as a crucial springboard for propelling women into national politics. Ann Keeling, the gender and poverty adviser for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Pakistan, said:

“If women lose the battle at the local level, they will lose it at a national level.” Her comments were supported by Farzana Bari, an academic expert on women in politics. She maintains that the 33 percent reservation for women creates a “legitimacy” which will help women in other areas of life in Pakistan. Bari said: “I see a very positive impact. For the few women who are already in politics, this will encourage them to be more assertive and to call for more representation. It will set the stage for the provincial and national elections as well. This has set the scene - now there will always be pressure on the state to breach the gender imbalance.”

Doubts over reform policy

In the lead-up to the elections, media reports and analysts have been abuzz with scepticism and condemnation in the context of the government’s reforms aimed at devolving power to the grassroots level. Political parties initially threatened to boycott the elections, arguing these should be “party political”. Confusion prevailed among the public and the contestants over the extent of the reforms. Political commentators said the government had failed to create a level of enthusiasm and interest expected to accompany such elections, and had made no attempt to develop an integrated media campaign. The electoral roll, newly prepared by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), was rejected by the Election Commission after it was found to contain a whopping 50 percent margin of error. Media reports suggested that the drought and poor economic situation affecting much of Pakistan’s rural communities meant elections would not be a priority for many of the country’s destitutes.

But statistics are encouraging
Despite these stumbling blocks, the first phase of the elections looks set to go ahead on 31 December as scheduled. Even if a proportion of the 33 percent of women come forward and contest the seats, it will “change the social and political landscape in Pakistan forever”, Bari said.

Naeem Mirza of the Aurat Foundation, fought back at the negative reports.
He told IRIN on Wednesday that figures just out made him feel optimistic:
“A very large number of women have come forward as candidates. Overall, a total of 7,617 women candidates have filed their nomination papers, indicating that they will contest a total number of 5,736 seats at stake in the first phase of local council elections.” He said this was a “substantially good response”.

Mirza said initial reports from the field indicated that from the 18 districts, the majority of women candidates were either backed by political groupings, citizens’ groups, community organisations and workers’ and peasants’ bodies.

Traditionally, female candidates in Pakistan have been disadvantaged by discrimination and their own limited mobility. In the 1997 national elections, women in certain parts of Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] faced intimidation and, in some cases, death threats if they wished to vote. In other areas, men in political parties came to “gentlemen’s agreements” to prevent women from voting in their constituencies.

However, Mirza said, traditional barriers were eroding. “Women have begun to move out of the structure of the home and into the community in most areas of Pakistan. Inhibitions are fading. There has been an increase in education facilities, which has improved literacy rates and mobility for women. In some areas, our campaign workers have reported that women have actually found men as their allies.”

Need for women to be politically
effective

Whether or not this trend is reflected throughout Pakistan, the immediate challenge after the elections will be to ensure that women in politics are effective. Ann Keeling envisages that this will be a gradual process, driven by the same NGO coalition which has been mobilising women in the communities.

She stressed the need to ensure that local support existed for women. “We need to build an environment in the constituency which is not hostile but actually supportive to women in their role as candidates and representatives of the people. These women require support at various stages of the political process, starting from their political orientation in the devolution process, capacity building for effective participation and representation, and developing their political strength in the post-election scenario. They are a powerful pressure group that can impact at the grassroots level.”

Timing of elections in question
Other issues still cloud the forthcoming elections. The local councils formalised on the eve of the New Year will not convene until August 2001 when all the councils will have been elected. The timing, too, has come into question, falling as it does in the last 10 days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Pakistani newspapers suggest that this final period in the month of fasting is doubly revered, because the first verses of the Koran are believed to have been revealed during this time.
Many Pakistanis isolate themselves in mosques, while others begin preparations for the celebration of the Idd marking the end of the fasting month and are in festive mood.

Significant impact of success in
reforms
According to Keeling, however, the government wants and needs this first stage of the reforms to succeed, and women are a vital factor in making this happen. “The government has stuck its neck out and wants these reforms to succeed. For the local councils to function properly, the women’s seats need to be filled. The government has an interest in making sure this happens.”

Mirza added: “I genuinely think that this kind of increased representation of women in elected bodies will be the most significant step taken by the government. This move facilitates the mainstreaming of gender issues and brings a gender perspective into every aspect of public policy. We’re not expecting miracles overnight, but this is certainly the most important step in closing the gender gap in Pakistan.”