Political stalemate continues in Islamabad, where government and opposition leaders have failed to reach a deal on an interim government. While a parliamentary committee meets to resolve the issue, the outgoing Prime Minister is governing the country without a cabinet or parliamentary oversight. Lucky him.
In the meantime, I’ve been looking at issues that will color the upcoming election and I’m particularly intrigued by the government’s record on women’s issues.
Pakistan is a patriarchal society and that is reflected in its politics. Although women have had the right to vote since independence, female voter turnout has historically been low. That may be about to change.
The Express Tribune reports that the government has, over its five-year run, increased female voter registration by 88%, and the nearly 40 million female voters account for 44% of voter registration over all.
That’s due in large part to a popular cash-transfer program for poor women, the Benazir Income Support Program or BISP, introduced in 2008. The program has been immensely popular, and compared to other areas of Pakistani bureaucracy, relatively corruption-free. Indeed, the Asian Development Bank recently announced a $200 million loan to help BISP to expand its work.
Its economic impact, however, is far less certain. A project manager for BISP tells me most of the recipients are spending their cash on food and other necessities. It’s not enough money for women to save and invest in education, health care or ventures that might actually lift them out of poverty for good. And with high inflation (Pakistan’s CPI is up 80% since 2008), the cash is of limited value.
A more important benefit of the program is political. In order to receive cash payments, women were required to register for national ID cards, and thereby for the electoral rolls. If those 40 million women exercise their new voting power in May, they may break heavily for the government that has been transferring them cash, a possibility not fully taken into account by polls that focus on registered voters from the previous cycle.
Women are likely to thank the government also for its legislative record. In its five year term, the National Assembly passed acts against acid attacks, workplace harassment and sexual harassment in public places; banned forced marriages and the withholding of women’s property rights; created a government commission on girls’ and women’s rights; and elected its first female speaker.
And yet, as the security situation in the country has worsened, women’s rights have been eroded on the ground. From the shooting of Malala Yousafzai last fall to the murder of a Karachi social worker earlier this month, militant groups have disproportionately targeted women and girls. Meanwhile, seeking to pacify these extremists, local government agencies have outsourced critical public services to religious charities with anti-woman views.
The People’s Party’s inability to curtail the violence is a huge failure in its own right, but it has also served to undermine the effects of some of the government’s best policies.