Building women’s leadership in the most difficult places (Pakistan) – case study for your comments

June 2, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Next in the series of draft case studies on active citizenship, some fascinating work on women’s empowerment in Pakistan. Any comments on this draft paper (RHV Pakistan consultation draft) greatly appreciated.

Well known for its highly articulate and influential women, Pakistan is also notorious for the severe restrictions placed on women’s personal and political liberties.

The Raising Her Voice (RHV) programme entered this very complex and sensitive issue by building a country level partnership with the Aurat aurat foundationFoundation (AF), which for the past 26 years has promoted women’s empowerment and citizens’ participation in governance. Working together, the RHV programme and AF established Women Leaders Groups (WLGs) in 30 districts across Pakistan.

In each WLG, 50 women, representing different political parties and with affiliations to a broad cross-section of community and civil society organizations (CSOs), came together for the first time to develop mutual trust and strengthen their collective voice. The WLGs are influential in their communities and have high levels of confidence and well-developed networks. Despite their ideological and party political differences, the women leaders see eye to eye on many women’s rights issues. They are able to work together to resolve local problems, such as violations of women’s employment rights and cases of domestic violence.

At the national level WLGs, in consultation with CACs and other community organizations, were the driving force behind the creation of a Women’s Manifesto for political parties. Ninety WLG members ran for political office in the 2013 election.

At the district and community level, WLGs have become powerful pressure groups. Whether advocating for the resolution of cases of sexual abuse in local schools, or custody rights and the right to a dowry after a marriage breakdown following physical abuse. Gaining strength and finding safety in numbers, they have challenged exclusively male arbitration bodies, which traditionally decide the fate – which can sometimes mean death – of women and girls in family disputes. In the political sphere too, their impact has been tangible. 31% of WLG members surveyed indicated that political changes had occurred with substantial anecdotal evidence of individuals in Departments receiving them respectfully and taking them seriously

Theory of Change

RHV began with a power analysis, examining the nature and origins of women’s exclusion and subordination in governance structures (both formal and informal), systems of justice (ditto), violence and public services.

The analysis identified two key drivers of change: allies and windows of opportunity.

Allies: As well as its work with women’s leaders at community level, AF’s wider networks make it able to broker a broad range of alliances among Pakistan’s vibrant civil society movement and beyond, including  the judiciary, social ministry officials, private sector, banks, media and faith organizations, as well as traditional decision-making structures such as panchayats.

Legislative windows of opportunity for work on women’s rights were opened up by the 18th Constitutional Amendment (2010), which enshrined the right to information, education for girls and boys, and a fair trial, and prohibited discrimination based on sex. Other processes such as administrative decentralization and the introduction of quotas for women parliamentarians also created new pathways to progress.

AF adopts a non-confrontational approach to avoid women, or their advocates, being exposed to greater levels of violence or having their already narrow political space being closed down completely.

Pakistan 182Pakistan’s cultural and religious barriers to women’s empowerment make it very hard to overtly organize women in public. But women can still talk to women in ways that outsiders – and most men – simply can’t, so RHV’s vehicle of choice has been WLGs. The women in them are mainly educated, some with party political connections, but an increasing number are poor.

AF supports WLGs through training, exchange visits and information sharing. WLGs have organized themselves into thematic sub-groups focusing on education, health, legal rights and social networking. WLGs’ informal directories of members’ skills and contacts, and formal directories of local service providers and assistance to support referrals are highly valued by women leaders. The multiplier effect of contacts and information increases the potential for support and influence, and safety in numbers reduces the risk of individuals being threatened with violence.

Central to RHV’s impact has been replacing isolation with networks: horizontal networking has helped to bring large numbers of women and men out in public for campaigns and protests, and to resolve specific problems, while ‘upward’ networking helps to link the WLGs with political actors and Government officials.

RHV works across three ‘spheres’:

Personal: both in terms of supporting the personal confidence and development of women leaders, and then helping them to do likewise for larger groups of poor and marginalized women in their constituencies.

AF has helped WLG members travel to observe women members of the provincial assemblies in action, as they challenge senior government officials and civil servants. Moreover, as ‘community women’ gain in confidence and become more articulate, the assumptions made by ‘upper echelon’ women about the priorities of their ‘village sisters’ have also been challenged.

Helping poor and marginalized women build their ‘power within’ in Pakistan starts with the basics.  WLG participation in the national identity cards registration campaign was a critical first step to developing and deepening the political identity and voice of women in their communities. ID cards also enable women to register for social assistance or micro finance schemes.


Social: As well as an explicit aim to build women’s collective action, AF’s work in the social sphere primarily focused on creating an ‘enabling environment’ for women’s political participation and leadership, allowing WLGs to respond flexibly to events. They have done this with enthusiasm, responding to floods, violence, politics and labour disputes in different ways.

Political: The work of the RHV Pakistan programme has contributed to the passing of groundbreaking legislation concerning women. This has included pushing for the approval of the Domestic Violence Bill, where AF has collaborated with, and often been the hub for, a network of alliances.

A large window of opportunity (and test of RHV’s impact) came in the months leading up to the May 2013 elections. WLGs, in consultation with other community organizations, developed a manifesto listing the minimum acceptable requirements of political party engagement on women’s empowerment. The manifesto and accompanying campaign reached both national media and inner circles of influence, achieving a high level of ‘buy in’ from political parties, and enabling WLG members to hold them to account:

Conclusion? RHV in Pakistan shows what can be achieved in even the most apparently unpromising of contexts. This is due both to the commitment, experience and expertise of the Aurat Foundation, and to the design of the programme. By focussing on women leaders, many with existing experience of how to influence local decision-making, it found a viable point of entry for working on gender issues. By establishing an enabling environment based on building confidence, knowledge, skills and networks among women leaders with strong local legitimacy, rather than specific programme ‘blueprints’, it allowed WLGs to respond to the shifting tides of Pakistani life and politics.

And here’s a particularly inspiring example of the kind of women getting involved – former bonded labourer Veeru Kohli on the campaign trail in last year’s elections

[vimeo height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/vimeo]