A promise to keep: Women’s commission to win autonomy

After being passed by the NA, the bill now goes to the upper house.

Fouzia Saeed February 01, 2012


This week the Senate is expected to finally fulfill the promise – made by the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani – to make the women’s commission autonomous so that it can be an effective watchdog.

The National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2011 was designed with the legal ingenuity of Senator Raza Rabbani and was passed unanimously by the National Assembly, with the full backing of parliamentarians such as Attiya Inayatullah, Shahnaz Wazir Ali and Riaz Fatiana, members of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and other progressive parliamentarians.

It awaits its fate in the Senate this week. Pakistani women expect a sixer (chukka) from the senior Senators. Once passed by the upper house and signed by the president, this bill will replace the National Commission on the Status of Women Ordinance from 2000.

The new law will strengthen the commission by giving it financial and administrative autonomy through an independent secretariat. It will have the authority to investigate and gather information on issues regarding women’s rights.

The commission will have increased responsibilities to oversee the international commitments made by the government on all women’s issues. The status of the chair will be elevated to that of a state minister so she can send recommendations directly to the cabinet.

The bill has already been thoroughly debated and revised in the NA, before amendments were introduced.

This institution should have been strengthened long ago, considering all of the grave issues that women face in this country. President Musharraf’s government showed good intentions when they re-formed the many, temporary commissions on women into a one permanent commission in 2000 through an ordinance.

One major drawback was that the secretariat of the commission had been placed in the ministry of women’s development. This proved to be a problem not so much because of the legislation, but of its interpretation.  Starting with the first chair of the Commission in 2000, Shaheen Sardar Ali, then Majida Rizvi, acting chair Dr Faqeer Hussain, and finally Arifa Syeda, all pushed proposals for amending the legislation and making the commission independent with its own secretariat.

All these eminent personalities tried their best to make the commission a monitoring body, but found themselves struggling with junior clerks to get their own files cleared through the Ministry. For eight years, none of those proposed amendments to the ordinance ever left the women’s ministry.

That pattern changed when Anis Haroon, a well-known women’s rights activist, became the chairperson in 2009. The devolution of power amendments to the constitution, led by Senator  Rabbani, finally made the difference. The women’s commission was selected to remain as a national entity in view of our international commitments and to look at the larger picture, while the women’s ministry was devolved to the provinces. In light of the 18th Amendment, a new bill was drafted by Senator Rabbani and was presented to the PM and the cabinet by him on behalf of the implementation commission for the 18th amendment and was approved on June 29, 2011.

After it was tabled in the na on October 13, 2011, the Human Rights Committee was tapped to review and improve it. Mumtaz Alam as acting chair and Riaz Fatiana as the chair of the Human Rights Committee supported the draft bill.

(The writer is a social scientist, author and women’s rights activist)

Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2012.


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