Women Parliamentarians Meet in Islamabad

Commentary | June 15, 2011

On June 3rd and 4th, 2011, the EastWest Institute facilitated the first-ever visit between women parliamentarians from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Over two days in Islamabad, the visiting lawmakers met with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari; Speaker of the House Dr. Fehmida Mirza; Prime Minister Gillani’s advisor on human rights, Mustafa Khokhar; Deputy Speaker of the House Faisal Karim Kundi; and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Caucus.

“These high-level calls reflect the Pakistani leadership’s conviction that women belong in the center of the state’s political life,” said Dr. Attiya Inayatullah MP and former Minister of Women's Development, Social Welfare and Special Education.

Many Afghan women fear that reconciliation with the Taliban could undermine their newfound political rights and say they need to play a role in making peace to ensure the region’s long-term stability.  Afghan MP Golalei Nur Safi, who belongs to the Wolesi Jirga and the High Peace Council, called women an “absolute must” in all negotiations.

Despite impressive gains, women in Afghanistan are still struggling to play a significant political role at home. Although women hold 68 seats in the Afghan Parliament, in part thanks to a constitutionally-mandated quota, women rarely serve on decision-making bodies or play a meaningful role in peace processes.

The June 3-4 trip grew out an EWI-organized international conference held at the European Parliament in December 2010, where Afghan and Pakistani women lawmakers decided to form a regional network. The aim: to build bilateral trust, and support Afghan women as they work for peace.

In Islamabad, the network went into action for the first time, with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus of the National Assembly of Pakistan hosting the Afghan Women Parliamentary Delegation.

“In Brussels we made a step forward in the bilateral dialogue between Afghan and Pakistani women MPs,” said Razia Sadat, Member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan. “But here in Pakistan, we made two or three steps forward toward building a strong regional network of support for Afghan women MPs.”

The delegation’s visit began with a closed session between the Afghan delegation and the Women Parliamentary Caucus (WPC) chaired by Dr. Nafisa Shah, Secretary of the Caucus. The Pakistani parliamentarians shared concrete experiences and lessons learned with the Afghan delegation, with a focus on progressive legislation including the Family Law (a similar law is currently under discussion in Afghanistan) and setting up a bank for small loans for women to support women’s economic empowerment.

Delegates addressed the issues of violation of human rights in traditional societies, informal justice and customary law. It was commonly agreed that women lawmakers in both countries should work together in addressing the misuse of religious beliefs, as well as involve prominent religious leaders in an ongoing dialogue on this topic. The media was identified as one avenue for shaping public opinion and raising awareness of these issues.

On behalf of the National Assembly of Pakistan and also on behalf of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus (WPC), in her capacity as the Patron of the Caucus, the Speaker of the House, Dr. Fehmida Mirza, pledged her complete support for the creation of a regional women’s parliamentary network. She suggested creating a permanent forum of women parliamentarians of the two countries and proposed the WPC as the hub.

Participants said that a regular forum or network would help Afghan women lawmakers learn transferable lessons from Pakistani women lawmakers, who have managed to take a leadership role in a country traditionally ruled by men. Regular interaction between Afghan and Pakistani lawmakers would also build trust person-by-person, and help improve the strained bilateral relationship.

"The delegation was a step forward in terms of changing the face of politics of the region,” says Shinkai Karokhail, Member of Afghan Parliament. “It creates solidarity and a common language among women who have committed themselves to strongly advocate for peace, security and human rights, and stand together for a common cause.”

The Afghan and Pakistani women parliamentarians put forward an Islamabad Action Plan which lays out next steps and concrete recommendations for the network. In the plan, the Afghan delegation agreed to revive an inclusive women’s parliamentary caucus, with the support of Pakistan’s Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. The women lawmakers also resolved to continue the ongoing dialogue, establish women parliamentarian advocacy groups in both countries, and to work together on issues of common concern, particularly women’s inclusion in security dialogues.

EWI has been requested to facilitate a follow-up meeting in Kabul in the autumn of 2011.

To learn more, please visit EWI’s website, where the Islamabad Action Plan will be posted in the coming weeks.