Women comprise more than 50 percent of Pakistan’s total population. Despite this, on an average, the situation of Pakistani women vis-à-vis men is one of systemic gender subordination, although there have been attempts by the government and enlightened groups to elevate their status in society.

In 2012, the World Economic Forum ranked Chad, Pakistan and Yemen as the worst in their Global Gender Gap Report. Having said that, several Pakistani womenfolk, especially in the rural areas, have suffered due to atrocities, like rape, acid throwing, honour killings, forced marriages, forced prostitution, etc, which were committed on them. So, a major remedy to the problem is women empowerment.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the first woman elected to head a Muslim country. During her election campaigns, she voiced concerns over a number of women-related social issues like health and inequality. She announced plans to set up women's police stations, courts and women's development banks. She also promised to repeal the controversial Hudood laws that curtailed the rights of women. However, during her two incomplete terms in office (1988-90 and 1993-96), Benazir did not propose any legislation to improve the welfare services for women, nor was she able to repeal a single one of Ziaul Haq's draconian laws.

It was only in the last regime that landmark development in women rights' legislation and empowerment in Pakistan took place, which was commended by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and, that too, at the international level. On January 29, 2010, the President signed the ‘Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2009', which Parliament adopted on January 21, 2010. Two additional bills were signed into law by the President in December 2012, criminalising the primitive practices of vani, watta satta, swara and marriage to Holy Quran, which used women as tradable commodities for the settlement of disputes, in addition to life imprisonment for acid throwing.

Against this backdrop of conventional social biases, policy neglect and lack of necessary exposure, capacity and advocacy skills and women representation and empowerment needed a boost. The need of the hour is drive for change not only from the legislative corridors, but also the civil society organisations, including NGOs, media and opinion leaders, in terms of working closer with women groups and leaders. When push comes to shove, one organisation, Search For Common Ground Pakistan (SFCG)’s endeavour of national level ‘Strengthening Women Parliamentarians in Pakistan for Effective Government’ is noteworthy.

The project aims at empowering and providing an impetus to women political leaders, who can become effective advocates of the cause. It supports current women parliamentarians (provincial level), as well as aspiring women councillors, to improve the larger national population’s awareness and perception of the role of women politicians as effective decision-makers in government and to facilitate them to demonstrate their leadership abilities and dynamism in advocating on a variety of issues at the local, provincial and national levels.

The initiative calls for strategic manoeuvre and its fruition is being ensured by SFCG and Insan Foundation Trust, who jointly organised a ‘National Networking Summit’ as part of their ‘Women’s Initiative for Learning and Leadership (WILL)’ campaign to celebrate the struggles and achievements of women political leaders, especially from the Provincial Assemblies of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (Fata).

It is imperative to take cognisance of the summit’s strategic objectives, which comprise: setting the context and identifying key issues and perspectives on women’s leadership at all levels of government; exploring ways of enhancing and synergising women leaders’ networks at national and provincial levels; developing an inspirational environment - with the support of women leaders, civil society, government representatives, business and opinion leaders, media and other stakeholders - to support and promote women’s leadership agenda nationwide; and raising general awareness on and advocating for women’s political participation and leadership in Pakistan.

In this milieu, there is an urgent need to proactively engage and fully support Pakistan's women political leaders, as they walk their individual and collective leadership journey, while facing numerous socio-cultural, economic and political challenges in their daily lives. The forthcoming general elections provide the nation a golden opportunity to harness the true potential of Pakistani women's competent and responsible leadership.

The writing on the wall is clear that women's political empowerment is fundamental and their socio-political leadership is inevitable, and it is hard to imagine a constructive and sustainable democratic change in Pakistan, unless women are included in the decision-making processes at all levels of governance. That per se is ‘women empowerment’.

    The writer is a former group captain of PAF, who also served as air and naval attaché at Riyadh. Currently, he is a columnist, analyst and host of programme Defence and Diplomacy on PTV.