Keynote Speech by Dr. Fehmida Mirza, Speaker National Assembly of Pakistan

Islamabad: It’s my pleasure to join all of you in celebrating the Report Launch of UN Women, titled “Progress of the World’s Women 2011-2012 — In Pursuit of Justice”.

It is indeed a timely and much-needed publication. It provides a useful database for the policy makers and opinion leaders, enabling them to redefine their strategies concerning women.

In fact, this Report has raised serious questions concerning the lacunas in the prevalent legal systems, which allow the perpetuation of gender-based crimes. At the same time, the Report has also offered workable solutions, which merit the combined attention of all stakeholders.

I, therefore, congratulate the entire UN Women team — especially its Pakistan Office — and earnestly hope that such efforts will continue to be a useful source of guidance and understanding for all concerned in future as well.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Women’s pursuit for justice stretches back beyond recorded time to the myths and legends told by ancient seers in all cultures and civilizations. Societies were always hesitant in accepting them at par their men. So when Plato advocated for their equal status in the interest of “the Republic”, he was readily snubbed by the so-called democrats of the city-state of his times. Little changed from the ancient Greeks to the popular uprisings of the post Renaissance period. The Declaration of the Human Rights 1789 passionately talked about the “preservation of the natural rights of man” but conveniently ignored the plight of women. Such “selective liberation” prompted women like Olympes de Gourgs (Olep de goz) to revolt, who drafted her own Declaration of Rights of Women in 1791. She was, however, immediately castigated, called hysterical and irrational for such daring act. Finally, in 1793, charged with the crime of “wanting to be a statesman, forgetting the virtues suitable to her sex”, she was guillotined.

Olep, nevertheless, is not the only martyr in this struggle for dignity, equality and empowerment. From her to Benazir Bhutto, there’s a long list of many vanguards of liberty, who paid the price in their blood for demanding social justice. Let us not forget that our great grandmothers had no right to vote or to be heard in the corridors of power till the beginning of the last century. Right to citizenship was not offered to them. They fought for it and proved “twice as good” to earn it. Noted activist Fareeda Shaheed once said:

“When women started demanding the vote during the suffragette movement, they were in fact demanding a re-negotiation of the rules of belonging to the state, a redefinition of the collective identity embodied in or implied by citizenship.”

In fact, it goes to the innumerable sacrifices of such women of substance that the political philosophies were forcibly amended, giving way to the present-day concept of an “all-inclusive democracy”.

The Universal Declaration of Democracy, adopted by the Inter Parliamentary Union’s Council in 1997 set the guidelines for all governments by concluding that:

“The achievement of democracy presupposes a genuine partnership between men and women in the conduct of the affairs of society in which they work in equality, drawing mutual enrichment from their differences.”

Today, no system can claim to be democratic and participatory if it fails to include and address the issues concerning its women. And let it be remembered by all that there can be no democracy if there’s no equity-based social justice. It is thus that in this age of democratization, nations are increasingly creating space for their women. According to the Progress of Women Report, launched today, the constitutions of 139 countries of the world grant equal status to their women in all realms of life. 125 countries have outlawed domestic violence and in at least 52 countries, marital rape is a criminal offence.

This also holds true for Pakistan where each time, the return of democracy brought concrete measures to women’s empowerment. The first people’s participatory democracy of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw the first-ever induction of women at the highest decision-making bodies.

First woman Governor, first woman Deputy Speaker, first woman Senator, first woman Parliamentary Secretary, first woman vice Chancellor — indeed we crossed many barriers for the first time. It was also at that time that the Constitution of the land granted women not only equal rights but also attempted to make up for the follies of the past by promising to make special provisions for the protection of their long-neglected interests.

The two brief tenures of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto were literally a race against time when it comes to women. In a combined less than five years, her visionary leadership was able to leave behind a shining legacy of a Woman’s Ministry, a Woman’s Bank, a Woman’s corps of health workers and the largest number of women cabinet ministers. Above all, a new guideline for all future legislations was also set as Pakistan signed the CEDAW Convention under her premiership. I am proud to note that despite all challenges, the present democratic set-up has also managed to follow the same footmarks.

The election of the first woman Speaker of the National Assembly in the entire Muslim World as well as in the Region, with an over two-third majority marked the opening of return of democracy in 2008.

This was followed by elections of women as Deputy Speakers in Sindh and Azad Jammu and Kashmir legislatures. Pakistan has seen its first woman Foreign Minister during this government while other women have also been placed in key cabinet positions. A woman was chosen to be the first Governor of Gilgit-Baltistan while key policy-making bodies like the Planning Commission also got woman representation for the first time. The National Commission on the Status of Women was also restructured and is now all set to get an autonomous status. A woman Ombudsmen has also been appointed while numerous talented women officers have been promoted to serve as federal secretaries.

And above all, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is also for the first time in our national history that the federal and provincial legislatures have seen a record number of women legislators, both on the reserved as well as on general seats. Their performance has amply demonstrated that they are second to none.

In fact, it is due to their zeal and devotion that the present National Assembly has been able to earn a special place in our history for becoming a pro-active forum in protecting the rights of women. In the last three years of its 5-year tenure, the National Assembly has passed 77 Bills. More than a dozen relate to women and children.

The passage of the 18th Amendment has provided an exceptional opportunity for provincial legislatures to expand their scope and make a decisive move to address the core issue of social justice at the grass-roots level. This also holds true for important legislations like the domestic violence bill, which is now more under the purview of the provinces.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

Laws hold a critical balance in shaping societies although they alone cannot bring a change in mindsets. We must go beyond in breaking the clichés of centuries. No government, no matter how democratic in nature, can bring about a revolution on its own if it is not backed by a strong and committed public opinion. The ideologies of seclusion and exclusion, social construction of femininity and the traditional demarcation of roles by gender are deeply entrenched in our socio-cultural environment. The mindsets are drawn under the influence of these concepts, which are often reflected at various levels of enacting, interpreting and enforcing of laws.

So, irrespective of the fact that no matter how many laws we change, if we fail to change the minds behind the delivery-mechanisms of these laws, we will continue to face hurdles. The inclusion of Article 25(A) in the constitution under the 18th Amendment is therefore a milestone towards this change as education is the key to such social transformation. I would nevertheless also call for a comprehensive review of our existing curriculum, which reinforces the stereotype gender images.

It is high time that we make our society realize that gender roles, inequities and power imbalances are not a ‘natural’ result of biological differences, but determined by the systems and cultures in which we live. The same can be changed if we seek social change.

This in turn requires broad-based mobilization. We must, therefore forge a comprehensive alliance of political parties, civil society, media and of course the international partners. Here, I would certainly like to acknowledge the contributions of the United Nations, which has remained the most powerful system of global mobilization in protecting and promoting women rights.

I am reminded of the founding Charter of the UN, signed in San Francisco in 1946. It was then that for the first time, the nations of the world reaffirmed their “faith in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

The diction of the Rights Movement, Ladies and Gentlemen, thus changed for all times to come as women’s rights were finally acknowledged as human rights.

It also goes to the credit of various UN agencies, conferences and conventions, which have remained instrumental in persistently pushing governments to acknowledge and include women as equal partners in progress by redefining state policies and re-fixing national priorities.

The global women’s movement rightly cherishes the memories of 1975’s Mexico Conference, 1980’s Copenhagen, 1985’s Nairobi, the ICPD Cairo 1994 and then the Beijing Conference of 1995 as the gains made at these UN Conferences have gone a long way in strengthening women’s position in our respective societies.

And here Ladies and Gentlemen! I wish to add a footnote to history.

—- The First Women’s Conference, 1975, Mexico: Pakistan’s delegation was lead by Begum Nusrat Bhutto.

—-The last Women’s Conference, 1995, Beijing: Benazir Bhutto leads Pakistan.

The thread of history does not only link two unprecedented events in the international women’s movement but also two generations, who have remained the guiding light behinds the rights struggle in Pakistan.

It’s indeed a unique privilege and an honour that we are all linked with the same thread.

And so guided by the same wisdom, we are also moving to consolidate our women’s position by reaffirming our international commitments and alliances. Pakistan will hold the 7th Meeting of the Women Speakers of Parliaments around the world in November this year, where we will focus on making our parliaments more gender sensitive.

The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus held its first-ever National Convention of Women Parliamentarians last year, which enabled women representatives from all federating units and also representatives of the SAARC countries to gather under one roof and discuss their role in peace-making, security and reconciliation. This forum is now being extended as the next Convention is planned at a larger level to include countries of the Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia.

These international forums are indeed important in providing the decision makers an opportunity to create common understanding in addressing common problems.

However such an understanding can only translate into practical actions if we back the process through a clearly defined and efficient platform.

It’s in this spirit that this month, at the SAARC Speakers Conference in Delhi, I proposed the creation of a SAARC Parliament, which could allow the parliamentarians of the region to jointly address issues of social injustice, the speeding up of the MDGs and the realization of an equity-based — gender-balanced — mutually beneficial —- SAARC community.

International partners like the UN, and especially the UN Women, with their neutral credentials and cross-country presence are well-positioned to assist in defining the role, scope and processes for such envisioned Forum. At the same time, with in Pakistan, I also look forward for further cementing and consolidating the relationship between the UN Women and Women Parliamentarians. We have succeeded in forging this partnership at the federal level between the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and the UN Women.

We now have to extend it to the provincial assemblies as well.

Such issue-based collaboration can go a long way in implementing the recommendations of this UN Women’s Report, which rightly calls for:

• Repealing laws which discriminate against women

• Supporting innovative justice services, including one-stop shops, legal aid and specialized courts

• Putting women on the frontline of justice delivery and

• Investing in justice systems that can respond to women needs.

• I consider these four points an excellent agenda for a meaningful partnership amongst us.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

As I conclude, I wish to leave you with the thought from Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

While inaugurating the first-ever Conference of Women Parliamentarians of the Muslim World in 1995, she said:

“We should not shrink from responsibility; we should welcome it — welcome it on behalf of women all over the world, in cities, in rural villages. For all who suffered before, and for all who come after us, we are privileged to be in this special position — in this special time — with this extraordinary opportunity — to change the future.”

So let us together change the future.

This is an opportunity that lies within our reach today.

Let us jointly grasp the opportunity for the common benefit of the millions of silent and suffering women.

Let us build a new — gender balanced — and equity-based Pakistan.

For more information, contact:
Karamat Hussain Niazi
Secretary
National Assembly of Pakistan
Parliament House, Islamabad
Tel: +9251 922 1082 -83
Fax: +9251 922 1106

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