Asia Briefing N°321 - Women and Peacebuilding in Pakistan’s North West


Women in north-western Pakistan have long been at the forefront of activism to bring peace and security to the region. More work is needed on legal, political and economic reforms for their protection and to help them make the greatest contribution possible to civic life.

Principal Findings

What’s new? A 2018 constitutional amendment provided for Pakistan’s north-western tribal belt to merge with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This change should be a boon for the region’s women, as it has extended them rights and protections they lacked under the area’s previous legal system.

Why does it matter? Much as women in the north west have benefited from the merger’s extension of legal and institutional protections, the gains have not yet been consolidated. Backsliding would not only hurt women but also deprive the region of the full contributions that women can make to peace, security and civic life.

What should be done? Federal and provincial authorities, working with donors, should redouble their efforts to enshrine reforms that allow women to contribute their talents to state building and peacemaking, including in the domains of political participation, security, access to justice and economic empowerment.

Executive Summary

Women in north-western Pakistan’s tribal belt are major beneficiaries of the 25th constitutional amendment, passed in 2018, which formally integrated the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. Basic constitutional protections now apply across the region, as do national laws that underpin women’s security and political and economic empowerment. Participating in civil society-led movements, women in the north west have long struggled to achieve such reform. Yet there is still far to go before prospective gains in access to justice, protection of property rights and opportunities for political participation are fully realised. National and provincial authorities should do their utmost to accelerate the pace of change so that women in the region can contribute fully to its civic and political life, including as peacemakers in the area’s long-running conflicts.

While the challenges that women faced across the tribal regions are enormous, the legacy of gender oppression in FATA is especially pronounced. Administered under the colonial-era 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulation by an unaccountable federal bureaucracy, FATA was until 2018 unprotected by constitutional protections, national laws or the Pakistani judiciary. Instead, rewaj or customary law reigned, meted out by jirgas (councils of male tribal elders or maliks). Jirgas often sanctioned abuses against women, including so-called honour crimes, swara (giving away women, mainly minors, to settle disputes) and ghag, a practice by which a man forcibly “claimed” a woman in marriage. Maliks, the bureaucracy’s chief local allies, were also the main impediment to women’s social, political and economic mobility.

Women living in PATA were in some respects differently situated, in that PATA was formally part of KPK and offered greater (though still incomplete) legal protections. Those living in urban areas like Malakand had comparatively greater opportunities for educational advancement and civic participation than their counterparts in FATA, although those in rural areas faced comparable levels of discrimination and repression. But the relative benefits enjoyed by PATA’s women eroded under Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship (1999-2008) and the provincial rule of an allied Islamist coalition starting in 2002.

The repression of women across the tribal belt created a deep seam of grievance that jihadist militants were able to exploit as they became an increasing threat to state power in the region. Alienated by the state’s unwillingness to protect them from the excesses of rewaj, and opposing rewaj as a governing principle, many of the region’s women responded positively to militant overtures at first. Appearing to take at face value militant pledges to provide rights and protections granted by Islam, they supported the Islamist fighters in both FATA and PATA.

This support, which seems to have peaked by the mid-2000s, was to wane as women realised that the militants’ own agenda of gender oppression was in keeping with the same social norms the maliks promoted, rather than the more equitable Islamic interpretations they had hoped for. Indeed, the militants’ oppression turned out to be severe. In PATA, it included attacks and bans on girls’ schools and colleges; the public flogging of women for supposed transgressions of jihadist edicts; and the murder of others. In FATA, it entailed further curbs on women’s mobility. Pakistani Taliban killings of perceived adversaries also left innumerable widows, many heading households, to fend for themselves in a region with few economic opportunities for women. Though some women became dependent on the militants for survival, many others, despite grave risks, defied their restrictions on education and work. Women also crafted strategies for protecting their families, including ways of preventing jihadists from recruiting their sons.

After successive peace deals it had reached with the militants failed, and attacks on security forces mounted, the military launched large-scale counter-insurgency operations in the region. The physical destruction and civilian displacement in both FATA and PATA were unprecedented in the region; the region’s economy lay in shambles and millions of residents had to leave their homes. Conflict-induced displacement compounded the challenges that women faced but, for all the hardships, also created unexpected benefits. Though life in internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps was harsh, it featured limited services and basic amenities – including the opportunity to obtain national identity cards that opened further doors to civic participation – that had been wholly absent at home. For female IDPs living with host families, exposure to KPK’s urban areas also raised awareness of the extent to which tribal women were denied social, economic and political rights.

As the state haltingly regained control and security improved in the region, segments of a large FATA youth population began campaigning for integration into the political and economic mainstream. Women in FATA participated actively in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, the most prominent of the region’s reformist currents. As well as demanding FATA’s merger with KPK, this movement pushed for demilitarisation and accountability for state excesses during counter-insurgency operations. The 25th amendment and the repeal of the Frontier Crimes Regulation were in large part an outcome of this activism.

The first signs of positive change in the former FATA’s merged districts are already visible. Women now have access to the institutions of formal justice and protections provided by the constitution and national laws. Some provisions that guard women’s right to property and inheritance and provide protection from rewaj abuses are already in force, if only starting to be implemented. In May 2019, the former FATA’s residents voted for the first time to elect members of KPK’s parliament, which now has a quota for tribal women.

These developments are historic, but the region’s women still have innumerable hurdles before them on the road to full political, economic and social emancipation. Development schemes for the merged districts have been pledged but there is little evidence that they are being implemented, undermining prospects for women’s economic mobility. A regular police force has yet to gain control of civilian law enforcement, leaving women especially vulnerable. Justice remains elusive for many women since courts are far from fully functional. Jirgas and rewaj are banned but continue to operate in the former FATA’s regions. Mainstream political parties, fearing militant reprisals or pushback from the maliks, appear hesitant to fully back women’s political empowerment.

To consolidate the gains that have been made toward empowering women in the tribal belt, government institutions, political parties and donors should work together to prioritise the following:

For women’s access to justice and security

The government, philanthropic and educational institutions, and international donors should provide incentives for women in the tribal belt to pursue legal careers, including through quotas in law schools, research and education grants, and other financial support. The Peshawar High Court should make concerted efforts to elevate qualified women lawyers from the tribal belt to the bench.

The federal government should withdraw its appeal of the Peshawar High Court’s October 2019 ruling deeming KPK’s Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Ordinance unconstitutional. If it does not, the Supreme Court should resume hearings on the case as soon as possible.

The KPK government should establish quotas for women from the tribal districts in the provincial police. It should also empower them to lead the transition to more gender-sensitive policing, including by training and authorising female officers to become first responders in gender-based violence cases. Donors, including the European Union, U.S. and UK, already engaged in police capacity-building programs should aid the provincial police force in supplying such training.

For women’s economic empowerment

The federal and provincial governments and international donors should consult women in devising development policies for the merged districts. They should provide targeted support for girls’ education and training of teachers. The health sector should also be a priority, with educational grants for and professional training of female doctors and nurses from the tribal belt.

The federal government should expand women’s access to microfinance, replacing current options that come with unaffordable interest rates with low-interest or interest-free schemes.

In converting collectively owned tribal lands to individual ownership, the KPK government should protect women’s claim to property. Enforcing the 2019 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Enforcement of Women’s Property Rights Act, it should take strict action when women’s rights are violated. Lawyers, political parties, media, NGOs and civil society groups, such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, should inform women of their property rights.

For women’s political empowerment

The federal government should, with international assistance if needed, launch an aggressive drive to ensure that women in the merged districts can obtain computerised national identity cards, which are required to register as voters and also to get access to cash benefits from schemes that target women.

The Election Commission of Pakistan should strictly enforce the 10 per cent minimal women’s voter turnout threshold in every constituency, denying certification of results where it has not been met.

Along with encouraging female voter turnout, political parties should also nominate women candidates from the tribal belt for both reserved and directly elected seats in the federal and KPK legislatures.

Political parties and civil society should recognise the importance of explicitly raising the unique challenges to women’s political, economic and social empowerment in the merged districts. They should draft their women’s rights agendas based on the outcome of dialogue with women from the tribal belt.

Women in Pakistan’s tribal belt have long been at the forefront of activism to bring peace and security to this troubled region. With greater protection from the authorities, and the realisation of consequential but still nascent reforms, they can enjoy greater freedom to pursue these endeavours to the benefit of peace, security and the civic life of their communities.