Will Pakistan’s devolution reform lead to pro-women policies at the sub-national level?

Punjab has shown the way forward after the devolution of women’s development ministry; however, implementation will remain a challenge

The past two years have proved to be significant with the approval of six bills that protect women’s rights including the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Act 2011 and the Domestic Violence Bill that was approved by the Senate earlier this year. The 18th Constitutional Amendment passed in 2010 also had an impact on women’s rights as it involved the devolution of several ministries, including the Ministry of Women Development.

While many women activists felt that greater provincial autonomy is a step forward for women’s rights, others felt that the provinces were not equipped with the systems and structures to meet these new challenges. The antagonists to provincial autonomy claim that Pakistan has one of the highest incidences of violence against women, hence it is still unclear how many of the laws will be implemented or adopted by the provincial governments and therefore a separate women’s division should remain at the centre. However, each province has a Department of Women Development that has a similar function to the Ministry of Women Development. This department has been converted into a ministry in both Sindh and Balochistan while Khyber Pakhtunkhwa established a provincial commission responsible for the same functions.

At the federal level, the National Commission on the Status of Women was given an autonomous status earlier this year, with full financial and administrative powers to ensure that gender equality is implemented at the policy level. More specifically, it aims to ‘review all laws, rules and regulations affecting the status and rights of women to ensure gender equality’. This suggests that systems for monitoring the mainstreaming of gender are already in place at the provincial and federal levels and that devolution has not had a negative impact on women’s rights. In fact, many prominent civil society actors feel it would help highlight issues at the grassroots level as provincial governments could use the experience and expertise of local women organisations to address the issues of women specific to their province.

Recently, The Punjab government has taken the lead on provincial reforms for the benefit of women. This year on International Women’s Day, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif announced a series of reforms to empower women by enhancing their social, economic and legal rights. This includes an increased quota of 15% (previously 5%) for women in government jobs in addition to a 33% quota for women representation in all major government decision-making bodies, including seats in the Punjab Public Service Commission. A special fund of Rs 2 billion was also announced for promoting women’s economic independence through soft loans for those women who want to set up their own businesses. Other reforms, including the appointment of a women development secretary and a women ombudsman were also announced to monitor harassment at the workplace.

The Chief Minister Punjab also announced the independent status for the Women Development Department that was previously under the Ministry of Social Welfare. The purpose of this decision was to put an end to the practice of usurping the legal rights of female owners during the division of land by making certain procedures mandatory to curb irregularities and ensure that women are given their due inheritance. The Chief Minister also announced the establishment of special committees that will monitor these procedures and offer advice on legal action against the officials involved in the misconduct regarding the division of inheritance. The provision of land for landless people in certain areas of Punjab was also announced, stating that it would be a joint property between husband and wife.

Given that the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) is a traditionally conservative party with members that opposed the passing of the Domestic Violence Bill, it is indeed a promising step in the right direction that other provinces could use as an example. However, it still remains to be seen whether these policies will be truly implemented. Presently, the only reform that has taken place is the establishment of a separate Women Development Department and the appointment of its secretary and according to recent reports, the paperwork for many of the legislations has yet to begin. Senator Raza Rabbani also recently staged a walkout in protest against the delay in the devolution of certain departments. Stating that the process of devolution is still in its initial stages, he suggested that one can only assess the impact devolution will have at the grass roots once the process is completed and the mechanisms are in place.

It is apparent that the implementation of reforms and legislation are the main hurdle at both the federal and provincial levels. Structural amendments need to be made in many of the existing ministries to facilitate effective performance and implementation. Nonetheless, there is still optimism by many women rights lobbies for devolution. Renowned activist Fauzia Saeed recently wrote “˜It is evident that the people of the provinces have strong hopes attached to the process of devolution and are ready to play their role in dealing with the challenges it brings. Whether the government feels the same way is not clear’ (What people say about devolutionThe Friday Times, July 01-07, 2011)

The continuous increase of militancy and violence in Pakistan is a constant threat to women’s rights. Therefore it is imperative to establish and implement policies that cannot be undermined by any non-state actors who are perpetrators of violence and do not support women having fundamental rights.