SOME matters are simply too important to play politics on. Protection of women’s rights is one of them. Unfortunately, the long overdue appointment of the chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women has run into an ugly, partisan controversy. Evidence of bias arose in the initial shortlisting process itself, but it came to a head two weeks ago during the in camera meeting of the parliamentary committee to appoint the head of the NCSW, a post that had been lying vacant for two years. Opposition nominee Fauzia Waqar polled six votes against five bagged by the PTI candidate Nilofar Bakhtiar. At that point, committee chairperson, the PTI’s Falak Naz, announced she was using her casting vote whereby both candidates ended up with equal votes. Legislators from the opposition accused her of violating the rules which stipulate that the casting vote is used only when both candidates have polled an equal number of votes. Last week, the government nevertheless notified Ms Bakhtiar as the new NCSW chairperson. The PPP denounced the move in the strongest terms and rejected the appointment as violating parliamentary rules and procedures and therefore illegal. PPP MNA Nafisa Shah asked the government to immediately withdraw the notification. The matter may now land up in court.

The post of chairperson NCSW has been lying vacant for two years. That gives an indication as to the importance the government accords a statutory body mandated to review laws and policies and monitor the implementation of legislation pertaining to women’s protection, equality and empowerment. The NCSW also plays a vital role in ensuring that the government meets its international commitments; it can even advocate for foreign policy to be shaped in a way to take into account the impact on women in Pakistan. The spate of horrific acts of gender-based violence that have occurred in this country in the last few weeks alone is enough to underscore why the NCSW must be made fully functional. An effective NCSW is vital for spearheading efforts to bring about improvement in women protection laws, and monitoring the way crimes against women are investigated and prosecuted. In fact, it can even undertake an investigation itself if not satisfied with the police report.

The Commission was established in 2000 as a landmark development in the history of women’s rights in the country. However, after the initial few years during which it led the way in bringing about several pro-women laws, it has often been handicapped by bureaucratic interference, and insufficient, inconsistent funding, not to mention delays in appointment of members and chairpersons. Enough is enough. Parliament must demonstrate the political will to review the law under which the NCSW was established and ensure that the fully empowered and autonomous Commission that was promised comes into existence. The women of Pakistan deserve nothing less.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2021

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