Pakistan is a fascinating country, especially when examining the two extremes of the same spectrum. At one end lies the country’s landscape of inequalities with stories of incredible discrimination against women, girls, and other marginalized communities, as evidenced by reported cases of GBV, VAW, disabling and toxic workplaces, and much more. On the other end, the nation proudly showcases an admirable roster of exceptional women and girls, hailing from both elite and non-elite backgrounds, who have accomplished remarkable feats and are leaving a significant impact in various fields.
Yet, the overall life of a common person is miserable, and the burden of miseries increases manifold for women with overlapping vulnerabilities. A particular section of society has become a self-styled guardian and champion of the liberal and feminist agenda. Instead of focusing sincerely on the uplifting, emancipation, and empowerment of women from below the poverty line to middle income, the entire attention is allocated to hollow and ceremonial gestures. Those who draw attention to donors and international partners working in or with Pakistan are not welcomed, eventually excluded from many invitation lists, and not recommended for paid work with such outfits and their funded platforms. Hence, the wise ones, unlike myself, continue to work quietly with the system in the name of sustainable human development and advancing feminism and ensuring gender mainstreaming.
While there is no magical solution to this deep-rooted, multifaceted problem prevailing for many decades, the eternal optimists see some hope in the democratic apparatus and women legislators. Having closely observed this “hope” as a commissioned consultant and a civil society activist and advocate of rights, I wonder how individuals like me should assess the current statistics and situation before the 8th of February Elections 2024.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan(ECP), 459 women have submitted nomination papers for the 60 reserved seats designated for women in the National Assembly (NA). There are 10 women and 140 men candidates competing for the 10 minority seats. Furthermore, 358 nomination papers have been filed for three general and specific seats in the National Assembly from Islamabad. The current elections witness a mere 4.77% representation of women candidates nominated by political parties on general seats of the provincial and national assemblies, collectively. This figure falls short of the stipulated 5% minimum threshold mandated by the Elections Act, of 2017, for each party. The party not contesting as a party, namely the PTI, displays a slightly higher percentage, with around 8% of female candidates in general National Assembly seats.
Reportedly, PML(N) and MQM(P) have also fulfilled the said requirement. Sadly, PPP, JUI(F), JI, ANP, and some other key parties have failed to show compliance. This oversight has gone unnoticed by many UN agencies and other technical aid agencies that fund and support electoral reforms. Especially noteworthy is the silence of popular TV channels in the media.
According to reports from various media sources and research bodies, the financial dimension of the electoral competition witnessed a substantial pooling of resources. A sum of Rs 6.5 billion was amassed by 28,626 candidates contending for general and reserved seats. Contributions from NA aspirants amounted to Rs 2.3 billion, while those aspiring to provincial assembly seats added Rs 3,79,20,000 to the electoral fund. Contestants seeking specific seats in the NA, designated for women, deposited Rs. 1,37,70,000, and those competing for provincial assembly seats contributed Rs. 2,73,00,000.
Minority candidates, as a group, contributed a total of Rs. 1,23,60,000 for candidacy in both national and provincial assemblies. The ECP upheld its fee structure, requiring Rs. 30,000 from National Assembly (NA) candidates and Rs. 20,000 from Provincial Assembly contenders. This policy attracted a varied and enthusiastic group of individuals keen on engaging in Pakistan’s democratic process. However, for a self-made middle-class urban man, let alone a woman, contesting an election remains a distant and elusive aspiration
It is saddening but not surprising to note the hollowness and myopia in the analysis of those usual stakeholders who take the limelight in such situations and continuously manage to create opinions that lack out-of-the-box thinking and intellectual courage. Personally, I have noticed many “doables” missing in the manifestos of most major political parties. While nearly all are keen to ensure that more “jobs” shall be created, no one bothers to give a clear roadmap. None have mentioned that disparities and discrimination would be bridged. For instance, it could have been mentioned that those occupying blue-collar jobs and jobs related to sewerage and sanitation will be given a career trajectory so that these jobs would be a transit point, not their permanent destination. Nobody loudly lamented that Pakistan has the second-highest number of out-of-school children and what exactly would be done in the first 90 days of their government to meet the mandatory article of the Constitution regarding access to education. Nothing clear and promising has been articulated about single women and single mothers (who are not widows) to reduce societal and structural stigma towards them. The idea of a tax break for such women that I presented in my book way back in 2010, and that was agreed upon by a sizeable number of political voices from nearly all key parties, does not echo anywhere.
There is a lot missing in the manifestos, and the entire social development industry here is continuing with the business-as-usual approach. Perhaps this apathetic calmness is what is endured and celebrated.