National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) is a statutory body to combat discrimination against women, established in July 2000. It is an outcome of the national and international commitments of the Government of Pakistan like Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995; and National Plan of Action (NPA) for Women, 1998. Four Commissions have completed their term of three years. Term of the last Commission expired on 25th March, 2012.
The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) was established with the specific purpose to: Examine policies, programs and other measures taken by the Government for women’s development and gender equality; Review laws, rules and regulations affecting the status of women; Monitor mechanisms and institutional procedures for redress of violations of women’s rights and individual grievances; Encourage and sponsor research to generate information, analysis and studies relating to women and gender issues; Develop and maintain interaction and dialogue with NGOs, experts and individuals in society at the national, regional and international level; any other function assigned to it by the Federal Government.
Background and History
The permanent Commission was established in response to the long standing demand of the women of Pakistan, who have waged a consistent struggle for their rights ever since the country came into being in 1947. Women were an integral part of the freedom movement under the banner of the Muslim League. There was widespread mobilization of women and they played a key role in the attainment of a separate homeland. Their public role was reinforced when they organized themselves to provide relief and rehabilitation to the millions of refugees that flooded the country after the Partition. Since then many battles have been fought and many ups and downs encountered, but some landmark events of direct relevance to the NCSW and women need to be recorded.
- In September 1954, in the final meeting of the Constituent Assembly a draft bill for the Charter of Women’s Rights was presented by Begum Shahnawaz, one of the two women members (the other was Begum Shaista Ikramullah). The bill was unanimously adopted. It asked for a reserved quota in the Federal and Provincial Assemblies, equality of status, equality of opportunity, equal pay for equal work, and guarantee of rights for Muslim women under Islamic Personal Law. Following from this, women activists formed a Women’s Rights Committee to raise awareness and lobby for women’s rights. Begum Nasim Jehan was a leading member of this group.
- These women and APWA, led by Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, were successful in having some of their demands incorporated in the 1956 Constitution of Pakistan, which gave double franchise to women, allowing them to cast two votes: one for general seats and the other for women’s reserved seats, while also allowing them to stand from general seats. The progressive legal provisions in the 1956 Constitution were later included by General Ayub Khan in the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961.
- Women again mobilized in large numbers in the late sixties under the banner of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and participated actively in the movement against military rule. When democracy was restored in 1971 under the leadership of Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the political support given by women was duly acknowledged. Services, such as the Foreign Service, and efforts were made to bring them into the mainstream. The 1973 Constitution recognized the equal status of women by affirming in Article 25 that: 1. All citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law; 2. There shall be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone; 3. Nothing in this Article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the protection of women and children.
- In 1975 the United Nations took notice of the discrimination and violence faced by women worldwide. The year was proclaimed as International Women’s Year, and the First UN Conference on Women was held in Mexico. A strong delegation from Pakistan, led by Begum Nusrat Bhutto, attended this conference. Consequently, on the 31st of January 1976, Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto set up the Pakistan Women’s Rights Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Yahya Bakhtiar, ‘to consider and formulate proposals for law reforms, with a view to improve the social, legal and economic conditions of the women of Pakistan and to provide for speedier legal remedies for obtaining relief in matters like maintenance, custody of children, etc.’ Unfortunately, its recommendations and plans were all overturned when the elected government was overthrown a year later in 1977.
- The rights of women suffered a serious setback during the Ziaul Haq years, as all kinds of restrictions were imposed -- on their dress, their participation in sports, in cultural activities and public events. Segregation was promoted and it was discussed whether women should be allowed to drive, work outside the house or stand for public office before the age of 50. (The Ansari Commission recommended that a woman could only stand for election if she was over 50 years of age, and only then if she was permitted by her father or husband.) Worst of all were the discriminatory laws, the Hudood Ordinances, the Law of Evidence and the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance. Against all of these there was strong protest from Pakistani women, in particular from Women’s Action Forum, and Zia had to answer many embarrassing questions when he went abroad. To offset some of the criticism he increased women’s reserved seats from 10 to 20 in the National Assembly, and set up the Women’s Division. He also set up Pakistan Women’s Rights Commission to inquire into the condition of women and submit a report. But its findings were classified as a secret document and never circulated..
- The Women’s Division was converted into the Ministry of Women’s Development when Mohtrama Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988.
- In 1995 the second Benazir Bhutto government made a strong commitment to women’s rights at the Fourth UN World Conference for Women held in Beijing and ratified the Beijing Platform of Action, which recommended that mechanisms should be put in place to meet defined goals. Also, the UN Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was signed and ratified in 1996 by Pakistan.
- The National Plan of Action for Women with a fifteen years perspective was launched in August 1998 as a follow up to commitments made in the Beijing Conference. The NPA was finalized after a long consultative and participative process that brought together government representatives and experts from outside government between 1995 and 1998. It covered the 12 Critical Areas of Concern identified in the Beijing process: Women and Poverty; Education and Training; Health; Violence Against Women; Women and Armed Conflict; Women and the Economy; Power and Decision Making; Institutional Mechanisms; Human Rights of Women; Media; Environment; and the Girl Child. The Pakistan NPA also has an additional chapter on Women and Girls with Disabilities.
- In 2001, as long demanded by women and human rights groups, 33% seats for women were instituted in local government, enabling women at the local level to participate in the decision making process.
Commissions and Committees
“There have been several major inquiries of varying scope since independence, and although each marked a significant step forward in its examination of the prevalent conditions and the recommendations it made, their recommendations were neither sufficiently incorporated into laws or policies, nor enforced in the few cases where they were so incorporated. The status quo was strongly entrenched and the political will insufficient for even partial success in meeting their intended objectives.” (Report of the Commission of Inquiry for Women, 1997)
- In 1955 the Commission on Marriage and Family Laws was set up, headed by former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Abdur Rashid. It was asked to examine if the existing laws governing marriage, divorce, maintenance and other related matters among Muslims required modification in order to give women their proper place in society according to the fundamentals of Islam. The Commission emphasized that “a reconstruction in the light of the spirit of the Quran and Sunnah is not only permissible, but is a duty imposed on the Muslims to make Muslim society adaptive, dynamic and progressive.” Regretfully, the Commission’s recommendations were only partially accepted. They were challenged in courts of law and widely defied in practice.
- The Pakistan Women’s Rights Committee, set up in 1975 up by the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government under the chairmanship of Mr. Yahya Bakhtiar, then Attorney General of Pakistan, relates most directly to the NCSW. It suggested progressive changes to several laws, especially the Family Laws Ordinance, the Divorce Act and the West Pakistan Land Revenue Act. Suggestions included: maintenance for the wife and children after divorce and a share in the husband’s property; claim to custody of children beyond the ages specified in Islam; changes in labour laws to benefit women workers; and greater representation of women in local government and provincial and national assemblies. Apart from reserved seats, the Committee suggested that it be made mandatory for political parties to put up at least 10 women candidates for general seats. The Committee also placed emphasis on education and on employment in all occupations, including government service, and recommended reserved quotas for women. Women were to be encouraged in sports, culture and the media. This Committee was the first to suggest that a permanent Commission on the Status of Women should be established, not only as a watchdog, but as the highest policy making body for women’s interests in the country. Also, at this time, plans were made to set up a Women’s Division attached to the Cabinet Division. The report, issued in 1976, remained unimplemented, as the Government got caught up in a general election, which was followed by a political crisis and a military coup.
- Seven years later, in 1983, Gen. Ziaul Haq, seeking to deflect widespread criticism of his anti-women policies, instituted a Pakistan Commission on the Status of Women for a specified limited period. The Commission, headed by Begum Zari Sarfaraz, was asked: to ascertain both the ‘rights and responsibilities of women in an Islamic society;’ to suggest how those rights could be safeguarded and how women themselves could help in eradicating ignorance, social evils, poverty and disease; and to recommend measures that could be taken to provide, education, health and employment opportunities to women. Interestingly, the Commission passed a resolution that every law pertaining to women should be discussed with the Commission before being passed. Its recommendations, such as the elimination of polygamy, or amendment of the Hudood Ordinances and the Qisas and Diyat Law, did not go down well with the government and the report, finalized in 1986, was suppressed. It only saw the light of day when the democratic order was again restored in 1988 and Benazir Bhutto came to power.
- In September 1994, as socio-economic indicators continued to point to the injustices of the discriminatory laws and show a widening gap between the two genders in almost all key areas, the Commission of Inquiry for Women was set up in response to a private member resolution in the Senate. Originally, the Commission was headed by Mr. Justice Saad Saood Jan, but later Mr. Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid was appointed Chairperson because Justice Saood Jan had to leave for a United Nations assignment. The report produced by the Commission in 1997 still serves as a useful reference document for researchers and interested readers.
- Finally, the decision was taken to set up a permanent commission, and the National Commission on the Status of Women was established as a statutory body in July 2000 under an Ordinance. It comprised a Chairperson and 18 members from the four provinces, ICT, FATA, FANA and AJK, a representative of the minority community and three ex-officio members, i.e. Secretary Law, Secretary, Interior and Secretary Finance. Since then NCSW has functioned under the wing of the Ministry of Women’s Development with inadequate staff and resources. This has placed severe constraints on its working and ability to deliver. It is hoped that with greater autonomy and resources it will be in a better position to meet the many expectations of the Government and the women of Pakistan.
Chairpersons of NCSW
Name From To
1. Dr. Shaheen Sardar Ali 01.9.2000 22.7.2001
2. Dr. Faqir Hussain (Acting) 23.7.2001 6.3.2002
3. Justice (Rtd.) Majida Rizvi 07.3.2002 7.3.2005
4. Dr. Arfa Sayeda Zehra 02.1.2006 1.1.2009
5. Ms. Anis Haroon 25.1.2009 26.3.2012