THE approval of the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012 is a significant addition to the country's growing body of legislation aimed at protecting and empowering women. On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed the bill that envisions the establishment of a commission with the mandate to examine policies, programmes and other initiatives on women's rights and gender equality, and to make recommendations to the relevant authorities. It will review existing legislation, rules and regulations that affect the status of Pakistan's women and suggest repeal, amendment or new legislation as required. With permission from the provincial government concerned, the committee will also have the power to inspect women's detention centres such as jails and sub-jails.All these constitute an improvement on the earlier National Commission on the Status of Women, which was set up under a 2000 ordinance but was considered a toothless mechanism. Women rights campaigners started advocating for increasing the commission's power and independence a decade ago, and while the delay is regrettable, it is nevertheless encouraging that the step has finally been taken. It is hoped that the National Commission for Women will prove a more effective forum than its predecessor. Some provisions for ensuring this have already been made, such as giving it financial autonomy and a more representative composition. In contrast to the NCSW, the NCW has also been given the power to hold an inquiry if a complaint concerning the violation of women's rights is not being pursued properly. The new law upholds the useful provisions of the earlier ordinance and adds to them.
Everything depends, now, on the constitution and operational efficiency of the commission, which should be set up promptly. There is little doubt that in many areas, discrimination against women has become institutionalised and some blue-sky thinking is required. Meanwhile, there remain on the books certain laws that are, in their current form, widely seen as having an adverse effect on the rights of women. An interested and independent commission could play a crucial role in this respect. The caveat here, though, is that the NCW - like its predecessor - does not have any implementing power and can merely make recommendations. Will the implementing wings of the state be willing to listen? That will be the litmus test for the government's commitment to women's rights.