Pakistan: breaking the glass ceiling

30 Jun 2010

By Mehreen Saeed, UNDP Pakistan

Members of the Women Parliamentary Caucus in Pakistan.
Pakistan has a high rate of women in Parliament compared to other countries in South Asia, with women accounting for 19 percent of representatives in the upper and lower houses. However, women in Pakistan still face many difficulties in accessing decision-making positions at the local, provincial and national levels, and are excluded from crucial political, social and economic processes in their country. Such under-representation has a direct – and negative – impact on the health and education of women across the board. In order to address this challenge, in 2006 UNDP supported the creation of a Women Parliamentary Caucus. Today, 93 women parliamentarian members from five mainstream political parties in Pakistan are working together to advocate for gender-sensitive legislation and amend discriminatory laws and practices. The results have been impressive.

“Whenever women wanted to raise issues of mutual concern, parties or party leaders were always there to impose their own political priorities which usually conflicted with the larger agenda of gender equality,” explained Nafisa Shah, Secretary-General of the women’s Caucus. Most notably, the Caucus floated two important bills on the floor of the Houses that eventually became Acts of Parliament: the Bill on Domestic Violence and the Bill on Sexual Harassment. The Caucus is now deliberating upon the implementation of these laws and devising the mechanisms for their effective implementation, advice that will then be passed on to the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Women Development, a member of the Caucus herself.

“A glass ceiling restricting women’s political rise is starting to break, albeit one crack at a time”, said Toshihiro Tanaka, country director of UNDP in Pakistan. UNDP helped the Caucus to write its own constitution, tapping into its own technical know-how and network of experts in democratic governance. It provided members with comparative studies of similar caucus constitutions from other national Parliaments and facilitated the consultative process within the Caucus. UNDP also established a fully-equipped Secretariat in the Parliament, where the Caucus now meets, works on legislative proposals and designs advocacy and lobbying initiatives for legislation.

UNDP also assisted with the creation of an interactive website where Caucus members can share with their constituents key developments in their programme in addition to the overall gender dimensions that arise in parliamentary business: http://www.wpcp.org.pk

Through UNDP support, the Caucus is devising a strategic plan to lay out priorities for the next four years. As part of this strategic plan UNDP will facilitate the Caucus’ expansion into regional governing bodies, with the support of other donors including USAID, UNIFEM and the Asian Development Bank.

In May, the new, multi-donor programme supported the first-ever National Convention of Women Parliamentarians (NCWP), focusing on the role of women in peace, security and conflict resolution. Three hundred women legislators from across the country and from the region including India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan convened in Islamabad to discuss the promotion of a gender equality legislation agenda and recommended a concrete action plan to be shared with the regional legislative bodies.

“It is going to be written in history, how this UNDP-led project has facilitated this first ever initiative of a women’s Caucus,” said Speaker of the National Assembly Fahmida Mirza, the first woman to fill that role in Pakistan. “It is going to go a long way.”

For more information on this project click here: Strengthening Democracy Through Parliamentary Development in Pakistan (http://www.sdpd.org.pk)