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Gender deficit in politics

By Dr Farzana Bari

Women’s exclusion in Pakistani politics is a historical phenomenon. From the time of independence in 1947 till 1977, only 32 women were able to enter as public representatives in seven parliaments of the country. Two parliaments (1955-1956 and 1956-58) had no women’s representation at all.

The disconnect in women’s participation and representation in formal politics is the result of multiple sociocultural, economic and political factors. The gender role ideology that defines women’s role as being in the private arena of home and the men’s role as being in the public sphere makes politics a male prerogative. Cultural restriction on women’s mobility, purdah, segregation, male domination, masculine mindset of political parties; and women’s weak economic and social capital base are some of the key structural barriers that militate against women’s political participation and representation. Consequently, the overall representation of women in the national legislatures of the country has never reached more than 3.5 per cent.

The effort to bridge the gender gap in politics was made through electoral reforms during the Musharraf regime. The Local Government Ordinance 2001 reserved 33 per cent of the seats for women in the local government and the Legal Framework Order 2002 reserved 17 per cent seats for women in the national and provincial assemblies as well as in the Senate. The motive behind the initiative was more of a political concern rather than a genuine commitment to gender equality in politics. That is why an indirect modality of election was adopted to fill reserved seats for women, which not only disempowered women, it reinforced women’s dependence on the male leadership of political parties.

However, despite the limitations and shortcomings in the way the gender quota was instituted, it did help to bring a substantial number of women into mainstream politics at both the local and national level. The visibility of women in politics and the performance of women representatives who actively participated in the business of legislation and in local governance brought a significant change in the cultural and political mindset of political parties as well as in the country.

In this background, it was expected that women would be playing a greater role in the forthcoming election as voters and as candidates. However, the electoral process so far does not uphold this popular assumption. The gender gap in the electoral process appears to be continuing.

There is a significant gender gap in voters’ lists with a deficit of 11 million women voters in the electoral rolls.

Moreover, the decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan to set polling stations for 750,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) in refugee camps will disenfranchise many, as most IDPs do not live in refugee camps and this will certainly have the worst impact on women IDPs.

Similarly, the gender breakdown of candidates on general seats shows that only 3.5 per cent of women out of 23,079 candidates will be contesting for the national and provincial assemblies, despite assurances from political parties to civil society organisations that they will grant at least 10 per cent tickets to women candidates in the 2013 election. All parties seem to have faltered on this. There are only 36 women all over Pakistan who are able to secure a party ticket on general seats for the National Assembly (NA). The conduct of the so-called liberal political parties in this regard has been disappointing as the PPP gave only 11 tickets, the MQM seven and the ANP two tickets to women candidates to contest on general seats for the NA. From the right-wing, centrist parties, the PML-N gave seven tickets, the PML-Q four and the PTI five tickets to women on NA general seats. Religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI typically reflect their hypocritical stance by not giving any tickets to women on general seats.

The current status of women candidates on general seats shows that there is hardly any shift in the patriarchal mindset of political party leadership towards women despite their tall claims to gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Women party workers are primarily accommodated on reserved seats and that completely negates the spirit of affirmative action. Gender quotas are instituted to ensure a minimum threshold of women’s representation in political structures. It does not mean that women should not be given tickets to contest on general seats.

Moreover, political parties expose themselves by excluding other marginalised groups of workers, peasants, religious minorities and transgender people in the distribution of party tickets. The class background of those who secured party tickets shows that there is no future for the poor and marginalised with these elitist political parties.

Political aspirants from oppressed classes have to contest as independent candidates. This shows that there is no space for the poor to represent their interests in mainstream political parties

The focus of the election campaigns of mainstream political parties continues to be on local influential males in order to secure a block vote as before. This reflects not only the gender, class and religious biases but also highlights the short-sightedness of political parties.

For instance, 2.78 million minorities votes are registered in Pakistan. Out of 272 constituencies of the NA, 98 had minority votes of more than 10,000, which can easily swing the election results. However, political parties continue to ignore women and religious minorities in their election campaigns because of the rigidity of thoughts towards the marginalised and dispossessed.

The social trends in the election process of political parties show that to avoid disappointment, the poor masses must not pin any hope that the future government will be able to deliver for them. Political parties who will form the government after the 2013 elections have already betrayed the visions and promises that they had made to the poor and women in their party manifestos.

People must know that in order to make a bourgeoisie democracy work for them, they have to be united and build stronger social movements and alliances outside the parliament. This is the only way that they will be able to hold the future government accountable and ensure that it will work in the interest of people of this country.

Source: The Express Tribune

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