On May 8, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assembly quietly passed a local government bill unanimously. There was no debate on it, either inside or outside of the assembly. However, the draft was thoroughly discussed with the chief secretary and commissioners of the province, but only briefly with cabinet members and Select Committee of the provincial assembly. Moreover, the real stakeholders — the public — were denied having any debate, as the movers of the bill did not consider them the stakeholders. This exposes the mindset of the so-called democratic, liberal and progressive ruling coalition of the ANP and the PPP.
The mischief hidden in this quietness manifests itself in the details of the bill. In comparison with the Local Government Ordinance of 2001, the new LG Act is elitist, pro-bureaucracy, retrogressive and undemocratic. Under the LG Ordinance of 2001, each union council had 21 members and had a quota of 33 per cent for women. Voters directly elected all union council members including nazims and elected members had authority over officials. In the new Act, all this has been reversed. Now, there are only 11 seats in the union council with just two seats for women. At the level of the municipal and district councils, the quota for women is 10 per cent, and as many as a quarter of members will be elected indirectly. Moreover, elected councils have been made subservient to the bureaucracy which is inherently undemocratic.
Reduction of the quota for women from 33 per cent to 10 per cent is particularly serious since it comes at a time when the plight of women in Pakistan is getting worse from bad. Also, the recently-revised electoral rolls have as many as 11 million fewer women than men. Pakistan stands close to the bottom on both the Global Gender Gap Index 2011 and the Gender Inequality Index 2011. Regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially with regard to women, Pakistan has failed to achieve most of the targets. For instance, the country should have reduced the maternal mortality ratio to 140 for every 100,000 live births by 2015 but the current figure is 276. Only 56 per cent of pregnant women have access to antenatal care while the target is 100 per cent. Besides, it is worth mentioning here that 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population is below the age of 30, and half is female. Since women are quite behind their male counterparts in terms of rights and so on, they need more funds and powers. This can’t be achieved unless they have equal say in decision-making structures and processes at all levels of society and government.
One very crucial lesson in governance is that what you can do at the local level, you should not try and do at the higher level. A number of social audits conducted during 2001-09 proved this. One study in 2005 concluded that 85 per cent of those who approached women councillors for help were poor women. The councillors would take up their issues with their nazims in union council meetings and with NGOs. There is enough evidence to conclude that women councillors played a crucial role in highlighting education and the health needs of their areas. They also played an important role to support survivors of domestic violence and rape victims and the case of Mukhtar Mai is worth citing here. In 2006, when the Multan bench of the Lahore High Court acquitted her ‘rapists’, the Women Councillors’ Network, in collaboration with Pattan, held a large rally in Multan. This triggered suo motu action, first by the Federal Sharia Court and then by the chief justice of Pakistan. Another exemplary contribution of women councillors is their role in taking care of Swat’s IDPs in 2009. Female councillors in Mardan and Peshawar mobilised host families for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and this was successful to the extent that as much as 80 per cent stayed not in camps but with these host families. The local chapter of the Women Councillors’ Network in Mardan also set up a centre for women at an IDP camp. Women councillors played a crucial role not only in solving problems of local women but also in taking collective action when there was a need.
A province where segregation between men and women prevails across the board and is seen in varying forms, and where custodians of this wall, by and large, do not allow NGOs to work with women all the while women activists are being killed, a substantive participation of women in democratically-elected local councils is absolutely necessary. Moreover, as progress on the MDGs has been extremely sluggish, bringing a substantial number of women on decision-making structures, eg, local councils, must be considered as an emergency. A mere 10 per cent quota will not achieve that and must be maintained at the 33 per cent level. Furthermore, all seats should be filled by direct elections across the board and this will allow people from all classes and economic backgrounds to contest and compete.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said recently that “terrorists want to bar Pakhtun women from progressing socially and economically”. He is absolutely right. But the fact is that his party very often surrendered willingly to mullahs’ pressure whenever women had an opportunity to make a difference through participation in elections. His party always sided with mullahs against women. As a result, in more than 550 polling stations in the 2008 general election, the turnout of women voters was zero. In subsequent by-elections in various districts in the province, women were again barred from voting. The ANP government should understand that the road to social and economic progress of women leads through their meaningful participation in political structures. Stop appeasing mullahs.
Lastly, it’s really sad that civil society organisations, which contributed enormously in enhancing capacities of women councillors during 2001-07 and championed women’s causes, remain silent on the new K-P Local Government Act. Fata will soon have a replica of the K-P bill and before it comes to that, sensible minds need to stand up and be counted.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2012.
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