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A disaster for Pakistani women

By Shakil Ahmad

The Pakistani women are trapped in a web of dependency and subordination due to their low social, economic and political status in society. Our parliamentarians would like to keep them that way. The majority of women suffer from various forms of poverty. In order to change women’s position and societal view of their inferiority, structural changes had to be brought about in the social and economic order.

Parliament would have been the best forum to legislate these changes. The worthy luminaries, who grace Parliament, would have noted that women are totally absent from the state structures and decision-making bodies. Their inclusion in governance structures is critical in bringing about substantive changes in the development policies and programmes that would lead to a shift in gender relations in the society. Although women do not have a role in the formulation of macroeconomic and social policies, they have borne the brunt of such policies. Women’s exclusion from decision-making bodies at the local, provincial and national levels does not provide them any opportunity to voice their concerns or promote their perspective on governance. The male-dominated governance structure has been creating and recreating gender inequalities. The composition of the Implementation Commission headed by Senator Raza Rabbani provides sufficient evidence, if this was needed or that the women’s perspective and concerns on constitutional issues were not material and could be ignored. The Ministry of Women Development was already in doldrums. It was starved of funds and the manpower it needed. The Commission has administered a coup de grâce to the cause of women development by devolving the subject to the provinces.

Pakistan has ratified a number of international declarations and conventions having a direct bearing on gender policy, human rights and equitable social development. These include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1987), the Earth Summit of Rio de Janeiro (1992), the International Conference on Nutrition (1992), the Convention on Rights of the Child (1991), the Human Rights Conference in Vienna (1993), the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994), the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen (1995), the World Food Summit in Rome (1996), and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995). It has reflected gender concerns in the Ninth Plan, National Strategy on Poverty Reduction, and Agenda 2010. However, the gap between commitment and reality is too wide.

Policy commitments have hardly been delivered in practice. No substantial efforts in terms of financial allocation, implementation plans, or machinery appear to be in place to translate the vision reflected in the policy documents into operational reality in the country. Having failed to deliver on commitments made nationally and internationally, the party in power has decided that it will now be the responsibility of the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) to ensure that the existing commitments are honoured and periodic reports are sent to various international organisations. The Implementation Commission must have carried out an O&M study of the EAD to determine that it possessed the requisite leverage to ensure implementation of the national and international commitments, and the capability and capacity to prepare the somewhat complex reports.

The UNDP’s gender development index ranks Pakistan 115th out of 143 countries. By almost any measure, the status of women in Pakistan remains an area of concern, despite the efforts made to improve their situation. While the government has made some highly positive policy gestures, such as ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); establishing the National Commission on the Status of Women; approving a national policy on the development and empowerment of women; and launching the National Plan of Action, many policies either discriminate against women or fail to address the gender implications of their actions. It is unlikely that the Economic Affairs Division would concern itself in any manner and agitate against the implementation of policies that discriminate against women. The EAD has dealt with foreign aid and bilateral/multilateral economic relations. The concerns of women will be alien to them. They will need substantial human resources to deal with what is being dumped in their lap as an unwanted child.

The word “advancement” is embedded in the vision behind the approved policy for development and empowerment of women. Advancement of women is also the motivating factor leading to the allocation of seats in the local government system and in the National and Provincial Assemblies. It is the underpinning factor in the policies and programmes of citizen organisations. Internationally, it is the moving spirit behind the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international covenants. In line with the national and international emphasis accorded to the advancement of women, it would have been appropriate if the Ministry of Women Development was spared the pangs of devolution. All that has been achieved will now be lost. The Pakistani women must be prepared to face the disaster.

The writer is a member of the former Civil Service of Pakistan. Email:

Source: The Nation