ISLAMABAD: Laws and regulations are not enough to end the plight of minorities and women in the country and change can only be brought about by achieving a higher literacy rate, said Sardar Mohammad Yousuf, the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony.

The minister was talking at a conference on the ‘Political Participation of Women, Minorities and Youth’ on Monday. The event was hosted by Democracy Reporting International (DRI).

He said that people from countries with higher literacy rates know more about their rights.

“For these vulnerable groups to know what their rights are, they have to be educated”, he added.

Speakers on women, minority rights applaud recent reforms, agree government is more ‘inclusive’ than before

He said that religion was often used to enforce traditions and customs and that Islam does not forbid women from getting an education.

The constitution gives equal rights to the minorities, the minister said.

Mr Yousuf said that more work needs to be done for improving protection for and securing the rights of women and minorities in accordance with the constitution and the international laws ratified by Pakistan.

“Currently, 10 MNAs and four Senators are from religious minorities and this number can increase if they contest on general seats”, he added.

Also speaking at the event was British High Commissioner Thomas Drew who said he had visited the country before as well and had seen a more “inclusive democracy” in Pakistan compared to what he had witnessed ten years ago.

He listed off examples of more participation by women including Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar win, the enactment of a bill for the protection of women by the Punjab Assembly and a more active celebration of women’s day across the country.

The envoy said Pakistan is passing through an important phase in terms of democracy and termed recent reforms a welcome sign. He added that the next general elections in 2018 will be important in terms of more participation by women, minorities and youth.

“We are proud of our historical links with Pakistan. We have a special bond with this country, the stability and prosperity of which is in our national interest, just as much as it is in the interests of Pakistan”, he said and that the UK has made a long-term commitment to support democracy in Pakistan.

DRI Director Programmes, Tim Bittiger agreed and said Pakistan has been going through important democratic changes.

He reminded participants that the European Union had granted Pakistan the GSP Plus, which gives it preferential access to EU markets.

However, he said, GSP Plus also requires compliance with 27 international treaties, which means Pakistan has one more reason to move forward with similar reforms.

Minister for Local Government, Balochistan, Sardar Mustafa Khan said the reforms adopted by the provinces and the federal government could only move ahead if democracy was not derailed.

The first parliamentary committee formed in Pakistan was the Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Committee which was headed by the Qauid-e-Azam, said team leader DRI Pakistan, Hassan Nasir Mirbahar.

Sindh Assembly Speaker Aga Siraj Durranu said his party will be taking note of the recommendations made at the conference and asked the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral reforms to enact reforms for more participation by women and minorities in politics before the next general elections.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2016