THE recent spate of anti-women practices, including ‘honour’ killings, has underscored once more the need for the government to harness all its tools to prioritise the protection of women.

Unfortunately, a key body, the National Commission on the Status of Women, tasked with furthering the rights of women, has been conspicuous by its absence.

A constitutional body with executive autonomy, the NCSW has been devoid of a chairperson for the past six months. With the three-year tenure of the last chair having expired in December 2015, PML-N minister Saira Afzal Tarar briefly took over as acting head.

While Ms Tarar remained the chair for one month, the stipulated period of her incumbency has now lapsed and the position remains to be filled.

If the NCSW is to function effectively, the government must appoint a new chairperson — an independent, apolitical women’s rights champion.

It is imperative that the prime minister and leader of the opposition select, as soon as possible, three shortlisted candidates, whose names must then be forwarded to a parliamentary committee for the final selection.

Deprived of a chair, the NCSW was able to spend only a part of its annual budgetary allocation of Rs78m.

True, the NCSW can only make recommendations, but in the past it has acted as a relentless catalyst for change by confronting widespread gender inequalities; reporting on violations, monitoring progress on the government’s international commitments and publicly outlining legislative amendments.

Meanwhile, the revival of provincial women’s commissions would also boost efforts at women’s empowerment and protection.

In this, the Punjab commission, or PCSW, has already set the right tone by coming up with the first Gender Parity Report based on gender equality data identifying areas of focus and possible government interventions.

While the progress of the Punjab commission on advocacy for women’s rights is praiseworthy, some other provincial governments, notably Sindh and Balochistan, must begin by prioritising the formation of functional women’s commissions.

The Sindh Commission on the Status of Women Act 2015 simply exists on paper.

In this, the revival of the NSCW would be invaluable to provide direction and for coordination on legislative and policy matters.

It is about time that the rulers understood the importance of empowering women’s commissions, and supporting and building on their work, given their potential for advocacy, research and dispensing valuable advice for pro-women legislation.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2016

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