What women MPs can do

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The controversy surrounding the Legal Framework Order, the elections of October 2002 and the recent accord between the government and the MMA notwithstanding, one positive feature has emerged under the present political dispensation. This is the induction of women on a relatively large scale in the assemblies and thus, by implication, their enhanced role in politics.

By increasing the number of reserved seats for women the Musharraf regime has enabled more women than ever before, to enter the legislative bodies. Today Pakistan has the good fortune of having 205 women MNAs, MPAs and Senators. This is a big jump from a handful who reached the assembly chambers a few years ago.

True, the female presence has so far made very little impact on the functioning of the legislatures which have failed to conduct much business in their brief existence of a little over a year. Although the National Assembly managed to meet on 131 days and introduced 20 bills/ordinances, it could undertake no significant legislative work. It passed only two bills, one being the federal budget. Perhaps the most meaningful performance of the House was the concerted efforts the members made to ask questions during the Question Hour. As many as 1932 questions were put up and answered.

Now that matters seem to be settling down, one can presume that the assemblies will pay greater attention to their key function, namely, law making. The ruling party has already announced that when the Assembly meets, a bill will be introduced to repeal the anti-woman laws on the country’s statute books. With many NGOs working hard to create awareness among women about the various issues of direct concern to them and workshops being conducted to train the parliamentarians in their jobs, one expects the women members to show greater interest and expertise in legislative work. Last week, they proceeded to introduce a bill on honour killing which was long over-due.

The general belief is that the female MPs should be concerned about gender issues and concentrate on them since their role is that of the custodians of women’s rights. As watchdogs they should be monitoring the performance of the government in respect of the status of women.

This is a paradoxical assumption. On the one hand, if women were not to act to safeguard their own rights, who else would do it for them in our male dominated society? If they wish to improve their status, they will have to display greater self-reliance and assert themselves.But on the other hand, it makes little sense that women should be segregated in political life and restricted to playing the role of a lawmaker for women only. In Pakistan, the conservative and traditional elements have always resisted the induction of women into the mainstream.

It is against this propensity that women legislators must take a stand while striving to get fully involved in the law making process. They should work to get laws enacted to safeguard women’s rights and promote their emancipation and empowerment. On these issues they must join hands across party lines. Although it cannot be denied that the female perspective on a number of issues tends to be different from that of a man’s, it doesn’t mean that women cannot participate fully in the task of governance.

It is also important that the women legislators who are inherently deeply involved in social issues should address them more keenly. They can act as a pressure group to compel the government to pay attention to matters relating to health care, education, housing and nutrition.

Being the key care-givers in family and the ones who primarily nurture and rear children and provide succour to the elderly, women are more sensitized and can appreciate the issues better. They can become the voice of the nation’s conscience and force the government to formulate policies to promote the welfare of the people and channel more funds into human development projects.

There are a number of issues which remain neglected since the policymakers have not considered them worthy of serious consideration. It would be pertinent to mention two of them. The first is a library law. Educationists and librarians in the country have been crying themselves hoarse demanding legislation which would regulate the library system in the country. In the absence of an adequate number of libraries and reading rooms, Pakistan is in no position to make books easily accessible to the common man.

In this situation, it has been left to the heads of educational institutions and some public spirited persons to provide libraries for the people. The countries like India ensure a good stock of reading material to the people by enacting legislation which makes it mandatory for the government to allocate a certain percentage of its budget to the libraries. Besides, it creates an authority to oversee the administration of the libraries.

The library situation in the country can be improved by passing a library law. It is heartening to note that the women MPs have begun to show interest in this project and a People’s Party member of the National Assembly, Sherry Rahman, along with others is working on the draft of a library bill.

Another issue crying out for attention is the cadaveric organ donation law which was introduced in the Senate in 1994 and has been lying there gathering dust ever since. With 5,000 people dying every year because of the non-availability of vital human organs.

It is a pity that this law has still not been passed. Since the medical and surgical expertise has been developed in the country – last month the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) successfully performed a liver transplant on a six month-old-baby – it is inexplicable why the law makers have been so indifferent towards this law. One only hopes that the women who now sit in the National Assembly will take up these bills.