By: Shaheen Ashraf Shah
RECENTLY, as parliaments around the world celebrated the International Day of Democracy on Sept 15, I found myself wondering how democratic Pakistan’s parliamentarians actually are in representing women in parliament.
The legislative history of Pakistan’s National Assembly suggests that in terms of introducing women-specific issues in parliament, the performance of male parliamentarians has historically remained extremely low. Perhaps more worrying from feminists’ standpoint is that popularly elected female members often behave like surrogate men.
What contribution are elected men and women making towards the benefit of their female voters? This is a pressing query vis-Ã -vis shifting some of the burden from female legislators occupying reserved seats to men and women elected directly to the National Assembly. Representatives need to be equally responsive, after all, to both male and female voters.
Legislation is one of the prime functions performed by parliamentarians. Regarding parliamentary proceedings related to female parliamentarians’ performance in the last National Assembly, a comprehensive analysis carried out by the NGO Aurat Foundation reveals that during five years (2002-07) only 17 (6.3 per cent) of the National Assembly’s 269 male members stood in support of their female colleagues or individually initiated the issues of women’s rights. The findings relating to the attitude of women elected on general seats are similar.
Amongst the 25 female parliamentarians who were most active during the 12th National Assembly, only two had been elected directly on general seats. More recently, while evaluating data referring to the current National Assembly, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) found that women elected on general seats contributed merely eight per cent of the interventions made by all female parliamentarians between March 2010 and March 2011.
During the earlier 2002-07 period, when a significant number of women first entered parliament, the Aurat Foundation report counted 3,698 interventions by 58 female legislators. The share of female MNAs in some of parliament’s proceedings as compared to male parliamentarians during the last National Assembly was 27 per cent of the total questions, 30 per cent of the total calling attention notices, 42 per cent of the private member bills, 24 per cent of the resolutions and eight per cent of the adjournment and privilege motions. Aurat Foundation’s report acknowledges women’s pioneering, persistent and purpose-oriented role, given their limited political and parliamentary experience.
There are clear indications of women’s growing role and outstanding performance during the current tenure of the 13th National Assembly, leaving male colleagues far behind in terms of legislative business. The yearly reports on parliament’s performance issued by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) suggest that during 2008-09, female parliamentarians introduced and co-introduced the highest numbers of private members’ bill. In 2009-10, the maximum numbers of questions – 607 – were asked by female parliamentarians and the maximum numbers of calling attention notices – 60 – were also submitted by three outstanding female parliamentarians. Of the 26 single member’s bills, 22 or 85 per cent were introduced by female parliamentarians during the second year of parliament, all of which were returned on reserved seats for women.
During the third year (March 2010-March 2011) Fafen reports that despite the under-representation of women in parliament, they remain highly effective as compared to many of their male counterparts. Women introduced 2,458 interventions during the third parliamentary year by contributing 29 per cent of the calling attention notices submitted individually and 82 per cent of those submitted in collaboration, putting 51 per cent of the questions – on average almost four times more than those posed by their male counterparts. They also brought 50 per cent of the private member bills, sponsored 95 per cent of the resolutions put forward and 80.9 of the motions under Rule 259.
The in-depth analysis of 115 private member’s bills available at the National Assembly website of the past four parliamentary years (June 2008 — Aug 2011) by the 13th National Assembly of Pakistan also indicates that female parliamentarians have been the most active legislators. The results show that 70 per cent of the private member’s bills are introduced by female parliamentarians individually, a significantly higher proportion vis-Ã -vis their representation in the house.
Interestingly, there are great differences between the priorities of male and female legislators. The latter give greater priority to social and women’s issues. It cannot be said, however, that women are not interested in hard-core issues since they have significantly represented issues of a legal and constitutional nature. Comparatively, male politicians showed very little interest in women’s and social issues, their priorities being mainly related to legal and constitutional issues, as well as those of business and commerce.
From this it can be asserted that if more women take over seats in parliament, we should gain a greater number of politicians who prioritise social and women-specific issues.
Significant numbers of male and female parliamentarians nevertheless fail to participate in any form of parliamentary business. Yet the facts and figures demonstrate unprecedented legislative activism by female MNAs on reserved seats and their strong commitment to women’s issues. They are constrained mainly due to the indirect method of election, as pointed out by Farzana Bari in her research on gender politics: in the absence of women’s own power base, their presence through the gender quota does not lead to substantive representation. Honestly speaking, not much is achieved in the substantive sense as little women-specific legislation is passed by the National Assembly.