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Ethiopia’s change is a bold chance for gender reform in Pakistan

by Quratulain Fatima | Agency for Barani Areas Development
Tuesday, 4 December 2018 11:55 GMT

A woman waves Pakistan national flags as she watches the Pakistan Day military parade with others in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is time that the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his party empower women to be catalyst of this change for women and men’s lives

Quratulain Fatima is the Project Lead of the Agency for Barani Areas Development, with a focus on gender inclusive development and conflict prevention.

When Ethiopia recently appointed its first ever female president, a cabinet with more than 50 percent of women, including a female Minister of Defence, and a female Head of Justice, it was a clarion call for Pakistan’s missed opportunity.

Ethiopia is not the only country to set such a bold example. Rwanda has long emerged as a success story of women empowerment by having the most women in Parliament and recently announcing it would give more than 50 percent of ministerial posts to women.  

When Pakistan voted in a new Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf (PTI) government in July this year, led by the Oxford-educated charismatic former cricketer Imran Khan under the slogan of “reform, many hoped that it signaled a time of change.

More than 50 percent of the population of Pakistan is female. However, the representation of women in the PTI cabinet is dismal. Out of 62 available cabinet seats, the PTI coalition government has appointed only four women as ministers—three at the federal level and one in Punjab.

Punjab is Pakistan’s biggest and most progressive province, yet there is only one female out of 23 ministers. In the North Western province of KPK, which has been ruled by Mr. Khan’s party for the past five years, there is not a single woman in a 15 member Cabinet.

The government also could not find any woman representative competent enough to run any of the four provinces that make up the federation of Pakistan. Moreover, not a single woman was appointed to the Economic advisory council (EAC) constituted to advise government on economic issues. Pakistan is the only country in South Asia that has never appointed a woman Supreme Court Judge, and has no plans on doing so in the near future.

Under the last government, PTI was the staunchest in its opposition to the Protection of Women Against Violence Bill, refusing to enact the bill in the province it governed, KPK. All other provinces enacted the bill.

Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 nations in the gender equality index of World Economic Forum. It has also been termed one of the most dangerous countries for women. Yet, the recent elections saw unprecedented numbers of women voters and representation in previously conservative areas thanks to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s legislations, which mandate that 10 percent of seats be given by all parties to women, combined with government efforts and civil society advocacy.

Ethiopia and Rwanda, both with conservative patriarchal cultures like Pakistan, have shown what reformist leaders with popular support can do to bring about changes in the status quo. Increased involvement of women in policy processes can lead to gender friendly policies and thus pave way for gender equality.

Even though gender equality has not been on his agenda, Mr. Imran Khan can step up to the challenge and include women in his government. No reform process is complete without including half of the population in decision-making processes.

He can start with including at least 30 percent women in ministerial and policy-making positions. Evidence suggests that more women in government leads to better governance and improved human development outcomes. Women pass more legislation that benefits women and allocate more funds to women-centric projects. Simply said, empowered women empower women and that leads to better outcomes for the society as a whole.

Women in Pakistan have never been given opportunities to be part of any change process. It is true that man of the hardcore religious parties which Mr. Imran Khan has partnered with push back against such steps—but it is possible with careful planning.

It is also essential that the current government does not discontinue gender targeted initiatives of the previous government such as the Gender Reform Action Plan (GRAP) and the Violence protection Centers and Women on Wheels. These initiatives have been very successful, and he may set an example by continuing them as a matter of policy. It would do much for his status as a principled leader, a trait he emphasizes strongly through his words. 

Women’s rights have long been put on the back burner in Pakistan. Yet, the impact shown in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia should motivate global change—and none more so that in Pakistan.

It is time that the Prime Minister of Pakistan and his party, who have come with an agenda of change, empower women to be catalyst of this change for women and men’s lives. No reform that excludes women is sustainable in the long run.