Impact of Women’s Political Quota in Pakistan

In the Parliament of Pakistan, there is about a specific quota reserved for women candidates. I am going to analyze here what impact women’s political quota has in Pakistan.

Women’s Political Quota in Pakistan

Quotas are mechanisms by which governments seek to increase the number of women represented in the governing body. “Gender quotas for the election of legislators have been used since the late 1970s by a few political parties in a small number of advanced industrial democracies; such examples would be Germany and Norway”. Although over 60% of countries have reached at least 10% women in their national legislature, fewer have crossed the 20% and 30% barriers. By February 2006, only about 10% of sovereign nations had more than 30% women in parliament”.

Types of Quotas Include

Sex quota systems: institute a “critical value” below which is deemed an imbalanced government. Examples of such critical values include 20% of legislators, 50% of politicians, etc.

Legal quota systems regulate the governance of political parties and bodies. Such quotas may be mandated by electoral law or may be constitutionally required (as in Pakistan).

Voluntary party quota systems may be used by political parties at will, yet are not mandated by electoral law or by a country’s constitution. If a country’s leading or majority political party engages in a voluntary party quota system, the effect may “trickle down” to minority political parties in the country (as in the case of the African National Congress in South Africa).

Quotas may be utilized during different stages of the political nomination/selection process to address different junctures at which women may be inherently disadvantaged:

  • Potential candidacy: sex quota systems can mandate that from the pool of aspirants, a certain percentage of them must be female.
  • Nomination: legal or voluntary quotas are enforced upon this stage, during which a certain portion of nominated candidates on the party’s ballot must be female.
  • Election: “reserved seats” may be filled only by women.

1970, 1973, and 1985 constitutional arrangements provided reserved seats for women at both the provincial and national assemblies, but of small magnitude, mostly 5 percent to 10 percent, and through indirect elections by the members of the assemblies themselves. Reservations lapsed in 1988 after three general elections as provided for in the 1985 constitution.

In the general elections of 1997, women’s representation hovered between 4 percent in the provincial assemblies (2 out of 460) to 2 percent in the Senate (2 out of 87) and 4 percent in the National Assembly (7 out of 217).

At the local government level, where 5 percent to 12 percent of the seats were reserved for women through indirect elections by the councils themselves, women constituted only 10 percent of the membership in 1993 (8,246 out of 75,556).

As per the constitution, 60 of the total 342 seats in the National Assembly (17%) are reserved for women. The 272 general seats are elected by a direct vote through the first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies across four main provinces, Federally-administered Tribal Areas, and the Islamabad capital territory.

An additional 10 seats are reserved for non-Muslims. The reserved seats for women are allocated to 4 provinces in the following manner. Punjab (35 seats), Sindh (14 seats); Khyber Pakhtun Khuwa (8 seats); and Balochistan (3 seats). Women members in these seats are elected through an indirect proportional representation list system, whereby political parties submit their lists of women candidates for reserved seats to the Election Commission prior to the election.

Following the finalization of election results for general seats, the reserved seats are allocated to the political parties in proportion to the number of general seats obtained by these parties in each province. (Constitution, Article 51).

Pakistan’s efforts to fulfill its commitments in international treaties and conventions to promote women’s free, equal and full political participation are summed up in the Report of the Commission of Inquiry for Women (August 1997), the National Plan for Action (September 1998) and the National Policy for Development and Empowerment of Women (NPA) (March 2002).

The Commission Report and the NPA recommend 33 percent reserved seats for women for local as well as national elective bodies through direct elections and the joint electorate. They also suggest the simplification of rules and the adoption of measures to ensure that women can exercise their right to vote. The National Policy, on the other hand, mandates the adoption of “affirmative action to ensure a desirable level of representation of women in the Senate and the National and Provincial Assemblies”.

As part of the democratization process, in March 2000 the military government adopted a Devolution of Power Plan, of which the important feature was the provision of a 33 percent quota for women in the district, tehsil, and union councils, the local legislative bodies mandated to approve by-laws, taxes, long-term and short-term development plans and annual budgets. The union councils, in addition, facilitate the formation and functioning of citizen community boards and cooperatives to reduce poverty, the overriding development goal of Pakistan.

The women contested not only the reserved seats but the open seats as well in the union, tehsil, and district councils and the posts of Nazims and Naib Nazims. Overall, women got elected in 36,187 out of 40,049 reserved seats for women in the local councils, 11 were elected as Union Council Nazims, one as Naib Nazim, and two as District Nazims.

While the government was supportive of reserving one-third of the seats in local councils for women, the same did not hold true for its policy towards women’s representation at the Senate and the national and provincial assemblies. After much speculation and debate about what percentage government will come up with, the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) announced that 17 of the 100 seats in the Senate, or 17 percent will be reserved for women, and in the National Assembly, 60 of the 342 seats (18 percent) 9 distributed to the four provinces as follows.

Gender quotas alone, as global experience has shown, cannot transform the quality of women’s representation. They won’t work unless they are adapted to women’s direct representation, in which more women would win elections rather than taking up reserved seats. Compared to around 13 women in 2002, the number of women in general seats was 16 in 2008, but only eight won National Assembly seats in 2013.

This downward trend was indicative of the shrinking space for women in the electoral process, despite a numerically larger parliamentary presence, Urgent measures are thus needed to create a level playing field for women in the electoral process.

Having organized a women’s parliamentary caucus (WPC), they achieved some landmark legislation on women’s rights.

These included the Amendment to Women in Distress and Detention Fund Act that provided for mandatory financial and legal assistance to women in prisons; the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act; the Establishment of Benazir Income Support Programme Act, which proved to be a useful income support initiative; the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act for Acid Crimes; the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act and the National Commission on the Status of Women Act.

In addition to legislation, they also highlighted a wide range of women’s issues on the floor of the houses. For example, without this advocacy for women IDPs after military operations in Swat, gender-responsive relief efforts, treatment, and rehabilitation of burn victims, and meaningful debate on budgetary allocations in health and education, most of the debate about governance in these fields would have been incomplete.

In the current mandate, they have gone a step further. Pakistan now has four provincial WPCs in addition to a federal one, the first initiative of its kind in South Asia. Today, 85 women parliamentarians and around 130 women MPAs from more than 20 political parties are working together to advocate for legislation that takes gender into consideration and the effective implementation of laws and policies that affect the lives of women and families.

Unfortunately, despite the quota, qualitative indicators of women’s meaningful political participation remained low. Despite accounting for 22pc of the federal parliament, from 2002-07 women could not achieve much in terms of lawmaking except the Women’s Protection Act.

In the subsequent mandate of 2008-13 however, women made more progress, overseeing policy implementation and raising important issues in all legislative houses.


For women’s full and equal participation in decision-making structures and processes at all levels of governance to be attained, a strategic framework is needed which explores ways of overcoming the cultural and structural barriers to gender balance in political representation.

Three strategic methods are suggested to address the cultural barriers in the full exercise of women’s citizenship: awareness-raising, capacity-building, and research and documentation. Advocacy for policy reform in political parties, electoral systems, and campaign finance, on the other hand, is recommended as the best possible way to overcome structural obstacles.

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