Even with more women entering political leadership roles, life for women in Balochistan remains harsh, with more than half of the women over 18 years not registered to vote.
In the 2018 parliamentary elections, more women are running for office than ever before for both elected and reserved seats from Pakistan's largest province in terms of size.
With a relatively smaller population, 25 women campaigning for elected seats in the provincial and national assemblies, plus 58 for reserved seats, are decent numbers, but male candidates still outnumber women six to one as per the Election Commission Pakistan (ECP) data in Balochistan.
It has been proven that having more women in assemblies has changed how the legislative body works and how things can change on the ground for women.
But in Balochistan, even with more and more women taking such roles, rising to key positions to improve women’s lives continues to be a challenge.
Poor living standards for women
Unlike other issues affecting women — like workplace harassment, which is specific to working women — social underdevelopment and poor living standards impact women across the board.
Only 18 percent of women in Balochistan are literate, according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement Survey, a number unchanged in decades.
Nearly 75 percent of women have never been to school. Proportion-wise, this is the largest population of illiterate women in the country.
Limited opportunity for education in most areas of the province is one of the drivers of illiteracy, along with social practices such as child marriage.
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Nearly six out of every 10 young girls are married before the age of 20, meaning Balochistan has the highest percentage of child brides out of all the provinces.
These statistics, combined with the lack of healthcare facilities for women, ensure that Balochistan’s maternal mortality rate is the highest in the country at 785 deaths per 100,000.
Child marriage has already been criminalised in Sindh and Punjab. In an attempt to outlaw the practice in Balochistan as well, lawmaker Dr Shama Ishaq presented a bill this year — but it went unentertained by most (male) members.
Ineffective political representation
In the last few years, several reports regarding women’s issues have attracted public attention.
Perhaps if there had been more women in the provincial assembly, legislators could have accomplished more.
But many believe that even with the current number of women, things could have improved if women legislators had been more active.
Currently, only 20 percent of seats in the Balochistan Assembly are reserved for women – meaning each woman legislator effectively represents 358,292 women.
The number of women legislators in the provincial assembly has stayed constant over the last couple of decades. In the last assembly, there was only one elected woman while 11 were from the reserved seats for women and one from the reserved seats of minorities.
How well have these 13 women legislators represented Balochistan’s women and their issues in the assembly?
The argument presented by most intellectuals and activists, backed up by statistics from Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), shows that women in the assembly did not stand for the rights of women or other important issues as much as they perhaps should have.
For instance, during the last five years, women legislators only participated in one out of every 10 of the assembly businesses (presenting resolutions, adjournment motions and questions).
Although the speaker in the last assembly, for the first time ever, was a woman, it made no difference – women legislators headed only two out of every 10 committees and presented only few legislations throughout their five years.
Since women, according to one expert I spoke to, are selected to be in the assembly because of political reasons and not on merit, legislation is not their strong point.
Sumaira Mehbood, an activist from Balochistan, told me that most parties encourage women to join as members merely to fill the gender quota. They depend on their male counterparts for support in order to pass legislation.
This can also be seen in women lawmakers’ performance over the last five years. They only sponsored one out of every 10 resolutions independently; for the rest, they had to rely on the support of male lawmakers.
Fewer women legislators, little legislation
Over the years, the number of women parliamentarians has stayed stagnant. In the last provincial assembly, there were 13 women members and 12 in 2008-13 and 2002-07.
Even though some women have managed to make it into the provincial assembly, barely any are considered for the caretaker government. The current caretaker government has only one woman minister out of 11.
Apart from their limited representation in every setup, a major concern is their capacity. To this, activist and researcher Dr Fouzia Saeed says, “there are no forums for women or even men to develop capacity capabilities and learn what law-making or oversight of the executive is. They do not have the capacity to assess the consequences of a bill or law.”
One such example is the Domestic Violence Bill of 2014.
Dr Fouzia Saeed explained that “the women legislators were handed an old draft. They quickly took it to the assembly without any corrections and passed a bill that does not even criminalise domestic violence.”
Hard work for votes
According to statistics obtained from Gender Election Monitoring Mission report, there were about 20 polling stations in Balochistan where not a single woman voted in the 2008 general elections.
In 2013 general elections, only four out of every 10 women eligible to vote were registered. This does not appear to have changed in 2018.
This is partly because they do not hold an identity card – thus they do not legally exist.
Meanwhile, the ECP has made it mandatory for 10 percent of votes in each constituency to be cast by women. If not, there will be repolling.
To make voting easier, caretaker Minister for Information Malik Khurram Shahzad has called to provide women with all the facilities in selection of their nominated candidates in the 2018 general elections.
However, civil society members in Balochistan working for women’s rights, while concerned about the lack of facilities and vague statements by government officials about providing them, are more disturbed by women’s inability to register themselves.
There is clearly a long way to go before women can make a deeper mark on the electoral process and legislation in Balochistan.