How Aid has helped Pakistan’s Women’s Movement achieve Political Breakthroughs

October 16, 2018 4 By Duncan Green

Guest post from Ayesha Khan of the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi

Do aid dollars help or hinder the women’s movement? In Pakistan, there are advocates of both points of view. I believe that my recent research as part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme has gathered enough evidence to settle it: there is a strong case in favor of long-term external support for increasing women’s political participation.

In today’s environment of shrinking civil spaces and post 9/11 suspicion of the West, it can seem that the opposite is true. I met with a group of women in Mardan, an area in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province where the effects of Taliban militancy and the war on terror make it difficult for community-based organizations to work openly. They told me that religious leaders, in their sermons at local mosques, refer to NGOs as ‘No God Organizations’. The implicit links between foreign funding, NGO work, and atheism puts local staff at risk of being accused of blasphemy, which is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The women I met in Mardan were part of the UK Aid-funded Awaaz programme, working at the community level to encourage women to engage in the political process. This included helping them get identity cards, which is a requirement for voter registration. (There is a 12 million person gender gap in registered voters, which could not be closed in time for the 2018 elections.)

Even though they were working in conflict-affected and deeply conservative communities, the Awaaz work gave some of the women I interviewed the confidence to enter electoral politics. One woman ran for a general seat on the union council, (the first tier of local government), and won. Another is now the secretary of the women’s wing of a newly established left-wing political party. Even religious parties, who position themselves as anti-western/imperialist, and conflate aid organizations with the same forces who conduct unpopular drone attacks in the region against militants, have benefited from the activist-NGO-donor nexus in the area of women’s political participation by gradually allowing women to serve as elected representatives.

The turning point was the restoration of quotas of reserved seats for women in all elected bodies, a process begun in 2001 (they had lapsed in 1988). My new book on the women’s movement in Pakistan shows how activists’ demand for a women’s quota in elected assemblies has transformed political discourse and legislation once reserved seats were restored. My current A4EA research on women’s political participation examines how the women’s movement ran its campaign for this quota throughout the 1990s, which created a political consensus in support of General Musharraf’s decision to grant increased quotas. Aurat Foundation, an NGO led by women activists, conducted intensive lobbying with politicians from across the spectrum. It developed grass-roots citizen’s actions groups in districts all over the country to create constituency-level demand for the quota that built up pressure on these same politicians from below.

None of this work would have been possible without consistent and growing support from international aid agencies – in this case the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) played the most important role. Other donors, including UK Aid, UNDP, Unicef and UNIFEM, often locally staffed by Pakistan women’s rights activists, joined in to support the campaign. Activists who took part recalled how aid agencies took decisions during the 1990s within a broader global context that gained momentum from a strong international feminist movement and landmark UN conferences – Vienna ’93, Cairo ’94 and Beijing ’95 – after which Pakistan committed to act on women’s rights and signed CEDAW. The many Pakistani women activists who served in local offices of these donor agencies pushed both their own government and these agencies to stay focused on gender outcomes.

The most satisfying part of the story took place when women came into politics via reserved seats. Almost 40,000 women entered local government on the 33 per cent quota during the 2001-2 elections, upending expectations that there would not be enough women to fill the reserved seats. In fact, large numbers of them had their initial training through Aurat Foundation’s campaign work. (In what activists call a patriarchal backlash, Musharraf soon halved the number of local council seats.)

Today the four provincial assemblies, National Assembly and Senate have a 17 per cent reservation for women. During the last two civilian governments (2008-13 and 2013-18) these women pushed for a wave of progressive legislation, to curb domestic violence, honour killings, sexual harassment, acid burnings, customary practices detrimental to women, and raise the legal age at marriage for girls from 16 to 18.

When I mapped out progressive legislation for women by government types and levels of women’s political representation, beginning with Pakistan’s formation in 1947, I found that it was only in this latter period that new laws began to substantively address what Htun and Weldon (2010) call ‘doctrinal’ issues. These are reforms in religious laws or cultural practices – areas where Pakistan’s religious political parties strongly resist any relaxation in ultra-conservative interpretations of doctrine or practice.

Again, this wave of legislation owes much to activism from the women’s movement and advocacy NGOs such as Aurat Foundation, as well as technical support/training of women legislators provided by the donor community. Some feminists fear that Pakistan is turning into an over-legislated country, in which we pay scant attention to effectively implementing our spate of new laws. But there can be no denying that political parties, at least the mainstream ones, have begun to take women’s issues seriously enough to give progressive laws their vote.

Yet hurdles remain, some of them quite petty. Cross-party caucuses for women struggled even to find a room for their meetings. Since the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus was formed in 2008, it has been forced to rely on donor support for training, research, hiring staff, and developing their legislative agenda. Women elected (indirectly by their party legislators) on reserved seats are referred to by male colleagues as ‘khairati’ (charity) seat-holders, and media critics deride them as ‘male proxies’ – stand-ins for relatives who could not run themselves.

In an online survey my team conducted, women elected representatives report being denied opportunities to speak and coming under pressure to tow the party line. Yet when asked whose interests they believe they represent, 75 per cent cited women in their home region, women of Pakistan, or the people of Pakistan – and only 19 per cent felt accountable to the party colleagues who elected them. So far, the outcomes of their work as legislators bear this out.