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The BBC's Susannah Price
"Local elections could bring about a major change"
 real 56k

Friday, 29 December, 2000, 11:56 GMT
Pakistan's women poised for power
Women in rural Punjab
The decision has excited women in rural Pakistan
By Susannah Price in Islamabad

This week's local council polls in Pakistan will be the first elections since the military government seized power in a coup more than a year ago.

The polls, being held on 31 December, are being seen as a test of the government's commitment to return to democracy within the next two years.

For the first time ever, a third of the seats in the upcoming local polls are being reserved exclusively for women as part of a radical reform of government.


The reason we took the decision to contest is so we can leave our work in the fields

Woman candidate Shahzada

In small villages, the local elections could bring about a major change, by offering women a new and far more prominent role.

The village of Megha in rural Punjab can only be reached by a bumpy muddy road surrounded by a flat expanse of neatly tended fields.

The villagers are employed as labourers, harvesting wheat and vegetables.

The poorest women here work on the land, while those from better off families are cloistered behind high brick walls surrounding the family homes.

Enthusiasm

The decision to set aside a third of the seats on the local councils for women has caused much excitement in the village.

Shahzada, an outspoken grandmother, has put herself forward as one of the candidates.

In this district just over 1,000 women are standing for 600 seats. In other more conservative areas the numbers are much lower.

Women in Punjab
Poor women work on the land
But here there is real enthusiasm.

Shahzada visits her neighbours to explain why they should vote. She feels it's important that ordinary women are involved.

"The reason we took the decision to contest is so we can leave our work in the fields... so we shall see how these government institutions are run," she said.

"When we see the educated people contesting elections then we want to follow suit," she added.

The villagers say the previous local administrations did little to raise their living standards - there is a school but no medical facilities.

It's hoped the elected women will focus on social issues.

Key to power

Women's groups have hailed the decision to give women a leading role in local government, but they say the authorities haven't done enough to publicise the move or help those who want to be involved.


It is the greatest revolution that has taken place in terms of women, women's lives and women's future in Pakistan

Women's Minister Atiya Inayatullah
And there are concerns that genuine independent women may not get a chance of being elected.

Although the local elections are supposed to be non-political, most women who are standing either have support from political groupings, or backing from influential individuals.

Dr Farzana Bari, who works with a non-governmental organisation trying to mobilise ordinary women, believes they will have a difficult time.

"I think there will certainly be some women coming in specially in business and workers seats but on general seats I would imagine the women will have support from the local traditional elite and the power brokers," Dr Bari says.

"I don't think they will be coming independently."

'Revolution'

The government is working hard to revise the badly outdated electoral roles and provide everyone with an identity card to allow them to vote.

Pakistani villagers
The countryside is set for change
Officials at the national database and registration authority in Islamabad say they will have the new voter lists ready for the 18 districts voting in the first round.

Poor illiterate women though have found it difficult to fill in the forms and apply for an identity card needed for voting.

But the Women's Minister, Dr Atiya Inayatullah, says despite the problems, the reservation planned for women in unprecedented.

"It is the greatest revolution that has taken place in terms of women, women's lives and women's future in Pakistan," she says.

"But this revolution must be converted into an evolution so that we institutionalise and make it a process whereby women are there to stay, and they are a part of the political process.

"And if we are able to do that, at the grassroots level, I can assure you we are in business," she added.

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See also:

02 Sep 00 | South Asia
Boost for Pakistan's women
14 Aug 00 | South Asia
Musharraf unveils local election plan
25 May 00 | South Asia
Musharraf pledges return to democracy
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