Gendering the vote: Political manifestos through a woman’s lens

Like every election, parties are promising the world to Pakistani women. But will this just be another stint? Only time will tell.
Published February 6, 2024

With elections less than a week away, almost all major political parties have finally released their manifestos, outlining their framework for governing the lives of over 246 million people for the next half-decade.

It is, therefore, crucial to examine what promises these parties are making to half of Pakistan — its women — this time. has analysed the manifestos of PPP, PML-N, PTI, JI, and MQM-P to explore what they have in store for women for the next five years.

Pakistan Peoples Party

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) outlines a comprehensive strategy for the empowerment of women in their manifesto for the upcoming election.

Their main economic goals for women include introducing a budget that works for everyone by ensuring gender-equitable distribution of resources, strengthening social safety nets to reduce poverty, allocating additional funding to vocational training, and implementing gender-inclusive land reforms.

The commitment to gender-responsive budgeting is appreciated, but what is needed is a transformative approach addressing the root causes of economic disparities. Some advocate for a more radical restructuring of economic systems, and posit that an intersectional approach is necessary to consider the diverse experiences of women.

Intersectionality | How multiple forms of discrimination based on class, gender, religion etc combine to adversely affect marginalised groups.

For instance, vocational training and market linkage programmes may need to be tailored to address the specific challenges faced by women from different regions and communities.

In terms of healthcare, the manifesto focuses on maternal health and family planning. It is interesting to note that these are the only two areas the manifesto sheds light upon, making one wonder if these are the only things that can affect women’s health. Although commendable, the absence of other gender-specific health concerns and the lack of access to healthcare for women, while focusing on maternal health alone, may inadvertently reinforce the idea that a woman’s primary role is that of a mother.

What about so many other common health issues that a significant number of women in our country deal with such as endometriosis, PCOS, breast cancer, etc? There should be more focus on making access to treatment and medication more readily accessible to women across regions and socioeconomic classes. Even in terms of family planning and reproductive health, there should be a more explicit commitment to women’s autonomy and access to a full range of reproductive choices, including safe and legal abortion services.

Moreover, analysing the manifesto through the reproductive justice framework, one is forced to think that the PPP should address broader social and economic conditions to allow women to make reproductive choices free from systemic oppression.

Reproductive Justice | The complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, social, and economic well-being of women and girls, based on the full achievement and protection of women’s human rights.

PPP activists hold placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Karachi on March 8, 2016. — AFP
PPP activists hold placards as they march during a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Karachi on March 8, 2016. — AFP

On the political and legal front, among the promises made by the PPP, two points stand out. One is to address the CNIC registration of women as parents or guardians in cases where single women adopt a child or serve as a single parent and the legal recognition of single parents, particularly women-led households.

The second is the establishment of a “code of conduct in consensus with all political parties to eliminate character assassination and public displays of misogyny directed at women representatives or the female relatives of male officeholders”.

This would address the common misogyny and double standards for female political figures while the earlier mentioned point addresses a crucial problem that so many women face in Pakistan while trying to claim legitimacy as citizens.

While the party’s commitment to increase political representation for women is a positive step in recognising the importance of equal participation in decision-making, the focus on reserved seats may only be viewed as a temporary solution and would call for a more fundamental restructuring of political institutions.

The PPP also promises to review discriminatory laws and introduce amendments addressing harassment, domestic and sexual violence, and forced conversions. They further want to make gender sensitisation mandatory for law enforcement personnel, judges, lawyers, civil servants, and especially for media personnel involved in reporting on cases of sexual violence, with the addition of rehabilitation of survivors of sexual and domestic abuse.

With these positive steps, there is also a need for forms that go beyond reactive measures to prevent gender-based violence in the first place.

The PPP also hopes to establish an ECP Task Force “dedicated to monitoring the allocation of five per cent seat quota to women contesting elections on general seats.” They also aim to raise electoral tickets for women candidates contesting elections on general seats from five pc to at least 15pc.

The commitment to increasing the number of electoral tickets for women and empowering them in local governance would help achieve gender equality through legal and political means. However, the distribution of electoral tickets should be inclusive of women from diverse backgrounds, especially underrepresented communities.

The party says it will initiate training programmes for women in political parties to improve their understanding of the parliamentary process. They also propose to encourage women voters to exercise their democratic rights and support “research, academia, and ideologies that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in politics”.

The effectiveness of these measures will depend on their implementation and enforcement which remains unclear.

The education section is relatively shorter with only four key points discussed. It promises an increase in the number of schools for girls and measures taken for their attendance and enrolment. Ensuring girls’ attendance in schools is not just about enrolment numbers but also about providing them with the capabilities to thrive.

They should address systemic barriers that hinder girls’ education, such as gender stereotypes and economic inequalities to create an environment conducive to girls’ education. The PPP further aims to ensure health and sanitary facilities in schools, especially addressing period poverty which is a step in the right direction to encourage more girls to pursue education.

They plan to expand the idea of the Pink Bus Service in Karachi to facilitate female students. They also want to “incorporate digital literacy as a significant feature in the curriculum and reduce digital gender gap enabling women to leverage online and digital marketplaces”.

From a pedagogy lens, there is a lack of focus on a critical examination of the curriculum to ensure it is free from gender biases and stereotypes.

They should also consider the unique challenges faced by girls depending on their specific backgrounds that stop them from receiving education.

Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N)

The Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N)’s manifesto outlines initiatives for women’s empowerment, covering areas such as economic development, legal safeguards, well-being, education, and political representation.

They aim to introduce the Beti Ka Tahaffuz, Qom Ka Tahaffuz programme to financially protect and empower girls. They also plan to extend the Women On Wheels program to improve female mobility and propose to significantly increase the budget for women’s well-being.

A significant financial commitment is proposed, with the plan to double the national budget for women’s empowerment from Rs5 billion to Rs10 billion. Infrastructure support will be provided including working women hostels and transport cards.

Another crucial aspect involves the strict enforcement of anti-dowry laws to combat harmful cultural practices that perpetuate the financial exploitation of women. However, the strategy to implement this is missing from their manifesto.

To boost women’s economic participation, the PML-N mandates 5pc government procurements from firms employing at least 50pc women and allocates a 5pc quota for women-run businesses in all economic and industrial zones.

While this aligns with feminist economic goals and is commendable, there should be a more transformative economic model that promotes equitable access to resources beyond quotas and numbers.

Utilising the Chamber of Commerce platform, the manifesto plans to launch a national mentorship program connecting young women with professionals in their fields.

Recognising the significance of women’s financial empowerment, the party plans to reconstitute the First Women Bank Limited (FWBL) and increase its outreach.

 Supporters of PM Nawaz Sharif shout slogans outside an accountability court where Sharif was to appear to face corruption charges in Islamabad on Nov 15, 2017. — AFP
Supporters of PM Nawaz Sharif shout slogans outside an accountability court where Sharif was to appear to face corruption charges in Islamabad on Nov 15, 2017. — AFP

The initiatives to promote home-based women entrepreneurs and support the handicraft industry run by women are positive steps. However, there needs to be a participatory and inclusive approach, involving women in decision-making processes to ensure that development policies truly meet their needs and aspirations.

The PML-N promises to eliminate the gender pay gap but does not mention any detailed strategies.

To improve women’s safety in the country, PML-N proposes several initiatives which include the formation of a task force on violence against women, establishment of women’s police units, expansion of the Punjab Women’s Helpline, creation of a cybercrime wing to combat online threats, provision of single-parent support, enforcement of legislation for property and inheritance rights.

The manifesto also advocates for gender-responsive infrastructure, Violence Against Women Centres, media collaboration for gender-sensitive portrayal, and accurate data collection.

Gender-responsive infrastructure | Infrastructure that considers the needs of different genders, promoting inclusivity and equality.

While these steps can be appreciated, there should be a move towards a more proactive legal system that is strictly enforced and actively prevents gender-based violence and discrimination.

Most importantly, the government needs to have more robust strategies to implement the said laws and policies as so many existing laws fail to protect and empower women because they are never fully implemented.

Instead of focusing on more such laws, the focus should be on how they can be implemented on the ground level.

Additionally, the initiatives aim to ensure accessibility to low-cost, quality sanitary pads in rural areas through price controls and mandatory quality checks. The plan includes launching a nationwide campaign for reproductive health rights, focusing on improving access to family planning services, expanding healthcare facilities, and enhancing the training of female healthcare professionals in rural areas.

While the proposals follow the reproductive justice principles, they should consider economic and social factors influencing women’s reproductive choices and rights. This includes addressing barriers to accessing healthcare facilities and family planning services.

Similar to PPP’s aims, broader healthcare reforms are required to address systemic barriers to women’s health beyond maternal mortality rates and reproductive health, including women’s mental health, preventive care, and other aspects of well-being.

Again, the emphasis on family planning and reproductive health while failing to address other healthcare concerns for women reinforces gendered stereotypes. The focus on only this area of women’s health also makes it difficult for them to access treatment for illnesses that are not primarily related to reproduction.

Women should also be involved in the decision-making processes related to healthcare and reproductive rights, and ensuring that initiatives are culturally sensitive and community-driven.

PML-N’s educational initiatives include financial assistance, educational loans, distance learning, and increased female teacher recruitment. The emphasis on financial assistance, subsidised loans, and distance learning can ensure equal educational opportunities.

However, similar to PPP’s promises, there is a lack of feminist pedagogies and curriculum reforms to address gender biases in educational content as well as promote women’s representation in leadership roles within educational institutions.

Moreover, more radical changes in the education system are needed to challenge deeply ingrained patriarchal values and foster a more inclusive learning environment for girls. They also need to ensure that education is especially accessible to girls from underprivileged areas and marginalised communities.

Their political empowerment measures aim at increased representation through reserved seats, constitutional amendments, and legislation for more women’s representation in public and private sectors.

On the governance front, PML-N proposes introducing a constitutional amendment for time-bound reserved seats for women with a shift from nomination to direct election, enacting legislation to raise time-bound reserved seats for women from 17pc to 33pc across legislatures for the next 30 years or six general elections, and ensuring at least 30pc representation of women in national and provincial cabinets.

The party should focus on addressing systemic barriers to women’s political participation and equal access to leadership positions and call for radical change to dismantle deeply ingrained gender hierarchies so that women can participate in decision-making processes related to policies affecting their lives.

Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) outlines a comprehensive plan for women’s empowerment in their manifesto.

In terms of economic empowerment, the PTI pledges to conduct a thorough review of legislation, eliminate discriminatory laws, and introduce new laws to protect and empower women. The party stresses equal pay for equal work, supports women’s education and professional development, and mandates the establishment of nurseries in major workplaces.

Similar to PPP and PML-N, the PTI should focus on effective strategies to implement the existing and proposed laws.

The manifesto also addresses social and cultural development, health and welfare, political participation, institutional reforms, access to justice, public engagement, and targeted measures against abuse and harassment.

The manifesto further introduces women-focused development initiatives, including the audit and restructuring of government assistance programs.

Additionally, micro-finance institutions and entrepreneurship development centres are proposed to support youth and female entrepreneurs, fostering economic independence and leadership.

In terms of education, the manifesto envisions a Pakistan where women have equal access to quality education. It underscores collaborations between industrial enterprises and the educational sector for hands-on learning and skill development. The manifesto also highlights the importance of promoting female vocational institutes as a pathway to women’s economic empowerment.

 Women attend a PTI rally — Reuters
Women attend a PTI rally — Reuters

The manifesto introduces various policies related to property rights and inheritance, democratic representation and election of local leadership, health programs, tourism initiatives, and progressive land reforms related to women.

While the PTI manifesto addresses a wide range of issues related to women’s empowerment, there are several areas where there is room for improvement.

The manifesto also provides an extensive list of policies, but it lacks a clear implementation strategy through which they plan to produce tangible change in society.

Even though increasing women’s representation is important, it’s also essential to ensure that diverse voices, especially those from marginalised communities, are adequately represented in decision-making structures.

While the manifesto underlines education for women, there is a need to ensure that these opportunities consider diverse learning needs, especially for women in rural areas.

The manifesto emphasises collaboration with industrial enterprises but needs to ensure active community involvement, especially in the establishment of micro-finance institutions and entrepreneurship development centres.

While addressing digital safety is commendable, there is a need for a more detailed plan for promoting digital literacy among women to empower them in the digital age.

It is essential to ensure that policies not only address immediate concerns but also work towards dismantling systemic structures of oppression and promoting genuine gender equality.

Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)

Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)’s manifesto proposes several measures to improve women’s conditions, with a notable focus on education, inheritance, and workplace policies.

While the commitment to compulsory education up to matriculation and equal opportunities for further studies is a positive step, the question of addressing gender biases within the education system and curriculum remains.

Moreover, the proposal to establish family institutes for the stability and protection of the family system aligns with traditional values but may raise concerns among those who advocate for a more diverse and inclusive understanding of family structures, recognising the myriad ways in which individuals define and experience family life.

JI’s commitment to ensuring inheritance rights for women based on Islamic Shari’ah principles is a significant move.

Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami march during a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Lahore on March 8, 2023. — AFP
Activists of Jamaat-e-Islami march during a rally to mark International Women’s Day in Lahore on March 8, 2023. — AFP

The manifesto stresses that candidates who do not give their female family members their due inheritance would be ineligible to contest in elections as well as would be prohibited from travelling abroad.

This is a pragmatic measure that would perhaps encourage at least political figures to provide inheritance rights. However, the manifesto should also take realistic steps to apply similar measures to non-political figures.

Moreover, broader legal changes are needed that not only concern inheritance but also other legal challenges that women combat today.

While the JI addresses issues like child abduction, rape, and non-Islamic social customs, it lacks an explicit intersectional feminist perspective. A more inclusive approach would consider the different ways women from various socioeconomic classes and diverse cultures are affected by these norms, demanding more nuanced policies.

On the workplace front, the commitment to providing a safe professional environment, maternity leave, and child-rearing leave is laudable. However, there is a lack of specific details on how these measures will be effectively implemented on-ground.

Similarly, the party acknowledges the need for flexibility in working hours, separate desks, and special transport for women, but the effectiveness of these measures depends on their practical implementation.

JI’s aim to promote domestic yellow industries and skill development for economic empowerment is also a positive step. But there should also be active measures taken to ensure women partake in decision-making processes that dictate economic policies related to them.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P)

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) says that it sees women’s empowerment as the creation of an environment where women can control their lives, make independent decisions, and have equal access to resources.

The party proposes effective legislation, strict punitive measures against various forms of violence and discrimination, public awareness campaigns, strengthening relevant laws, and revisiting discriminatory legislation.

 Members of the MQM women’s wing wait for their leader Altaf Hussain’s address at the party gathering on the Liaquatabad flyover in 2015. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Members of the MQM women’s wing wait for their leader Altaf Hussain’s address at the party gathering on the Liaquatabad flyover in 2015. — Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

The MQM-P commits to gradually increasing women’s representation to 50pc, establishing women’s rights commissions, and organising women’s shelter homes run by local governments with community support.

While their goals fit in within the ideals of equal rights and opportunities, measures beyond the legal realm should be considered to counter systemic gender-based discrimination. Laws alone cannot shift the paradigm towards equality and radical transformative steps are needed instead of so many reactionary measures.

The party stresses strict punitive measures. However, it is unclear whether harsh/capital punishment is the most effective approach to reducing violence against women.

Women should be encouraged to actively contribute to the development and implementation of the public awareness campaigns that the party has proposed.

Even though the goals mentioned in their manifesto are laudable, they should aim to challenge systemic inequalities and ensure that policies go beyond surface-level changes to address the root causes of gender-based violence and discrimination.

We’ve seen this film before

Broadly categorising, the manifestos of these parties can be classified into two groups solely based on their lengths. Notably, the women’s sections of PPP, PML-N, and PTI are considerably longer compared to those of MQM-P and JI. Sadly, this appears to be the only significant distinction among the goals of these parties, all of which claim to differ from one another.

Every party more or less promises the ‘right’ things like they do every election. Yet, the state of women in Pakistan remains the same.

Just recently, members of a prominent political party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) issued a fatwa (Islamic decree) against canvassing by and for women election candidates, deeming the act as un-Islamic.

This incident is just one of many examples illustrating the prevalent sexism and discrimination that women encounter in this country.

Beyond rural areas, even in urban centres like Karachi, women, even among the so-called educated middle classes, feel unsafe going anywhere alone and often require male family members to accompany them.

In a country where such challenges persist, even basic rights become a lot to ask for. Perhaps this is why the proposals of political parties also offer just that — the bare minimum for women. This explains why their manifestos shy away from challenging the status quo and the systematic sexism ingrained in the country’s institutions, avoiding ruffling any feathers to bring about radical and transformative changes addressing gender inequalities in our society.

This is why, much like in every election before, the words of these parties will amount to little more than hollow goals and aspirations for women, unless there is genuine will to upend the status quo.

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