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ISLAMABAD: At the second day of the international conference of women parliamentarians on Tuesday, speakers discussed several issues, including gender-based violence, the role of parliamentarians in women’s empowerment and challenges of integrating transgender people in development agendas.

The three-day conference on ‘The role of women parliamentarians in strengthening democracy and social justice’ has been organised by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. Lawmakers from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Australia, Romania, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Maldives, Indonesia and Nepal are attending the conference.

In the first session of the day, the panelists discussed social and cultural biases which contribute towards women’s disadvantaged position in societies. The discussion was led by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Law and Justice Barrister Zafarullah Khan. He reflected on the biases entrenched in Pakistani society, which prevent women from participating in political life.

He argued that efforts have been made in Pakistan to address discrimination and social biases through legislation. However, changing social values is a gruelling process which takes many years. “It must be ensured that all women vote in the upcoming elections,” he said.

Romanian MP Mara Mares said the constitution of Romania ensures equality of men and women before the law. However, she said, efforts must be made to include women in the labour market. “The position of women in a country is reflective of its level of democracy,” she said.

Speakers at conference of women parliamentarians also discuss gender-based violence and challenges to integrate transgender people in development agendas

Nepali MP Pemba Lama said women are agents of change and her country’s women have struggled long and hard for democratic rights. “Today, women make up 52pc of the population and laws have been made to include them in every sphere of life,” she said.

PML-N MNA Shaista Pervaiz Malik veered the discussion towards gender-based violence which she said is a global issue. “Every woman has faced some type of violence in her life,” she said.

Ms Malik said the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus has introduced landmark legislation to protect women against violence and now efforts must be made to ensure implementation. She underscored the role of police in protecting women against gender-based violence.

In the afternoon sessions, participants broke into discussion groups and deliberated over strategies to curb violence against women, issues facing transgender people and the ways in which women parliamentarians can influence political agendas to advance women’s empowerment.

The discussion on violence against women was led by PTI MNA Shafqat Mehmood, who proposed a three-pronged strategy for addressing the issue. The first step, Mr Mehmood said, is sensitising people, followed by the development of a legal framework. “Laws may have weaknesses but a legal framework provides the potential to move forward,” he said.

Finally, he said, implementation mechanisms are needed. He appreciated Benazir Bhutto’s vision in setting up women’s police stations and called for training women police officers in dealing with victims of domestic abuse.

Turkish MP Senal Sarihan appreciated Mr Mehmood’s contribution to the forum. “Support by men is necessary to make progress on women’s issues,” she said. Ms Sarihan also argued that laws are not enough to protect women when implementation is lacking. “Turkey legally addressed gender-based violence in 1999 but much more needs to be done,” she said.

Sri Lankan MP Anoma Gamesh said women face violence all over the world, from state, society and family. “Domestic abuse is deeply entrenched in the structures of many societies,” she said.

Ms Gamesh said many Sri Lankan women work as migrant domestic workers and face violence at their workplaces. “The Sri Lankan government is making efforts to curb violence faced by domestic workers which included the establishment of a special bureau dealing with migrant domestic workers,” she said.

Nepali MP Chitralekha Yadav narrated the experience of Nepali women in gaining representation in houses of parliament. Ms Yadav said in 1990 five per cent representation was given to women in parliament. “When these women were elected they told their parties that politics which excludes women will not be accepted. This resulted in an increase in women’s representation to 33 per cent by 2008,” she said.

A debate also took place on the topic of including transgender people in development agendas. However, the audience members were quick to point out that not a single transgender person was included amongst the panellists.

PML-N MNA Shaza Fatima Khwaja shared with the audience the challenges in legal recognition of transgender people and the efforts being made to include them in the political life. She called for a ‘transformation of social perspectives’ on trans issues.

Medical practitioner Dr Ayesha Ishani said exclusion of trans people from society means that they are unable to access health services. She spoke about the difference between transgender and intersex people and called for greater understanding of trans issues among the medical community.

Nepali MP Pemba Lama told Dawn she was surprised to see the issue of transgenders being taken up at the forum. “Many people think Pakistan is a closed society so it is heartening to see such a healthy debate on the issue,” she said.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2017