August 26, 2019

Pakistan Elections 2018: New Hope, Old Challenges for Women Voters

Islamabad — With a population of 31,244, Nara Amazai is one of those union councils of Haripur district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where women are barred from voting. In the 2013 general elections, not a single woman turned up to polling stations for voting there. Since Independence, female voters of Nara Amazai have never cast their votes in any of the national and provincial elections.

Now a woman politician is attempting to challenge the disenfranchisement of women in the union council.

The Awami National Party’s Irum Fatima, a National Assembly candidate from NA-17, is trying to mobilise women voters to support her campaign. Ms. Fatima said she has paid close attention to Nara Amazai.

“My campaign has visited various areas of Haripur including Nara Amazai,” she said. “We have tried to teach women the importance of casting a vote and also how to cast a ballot.”

But as polling day approaches for Pakistan’s 2018 general elections, Nara Amazai is not the only area where a ban persists on women voting.

The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) reported 15 incidents in which female voters were stopped from casting their ballots in the 2013 general elections. Ten of these 15 incidents were reported from Punjab, four from KP, and one from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

FAFEN Secretary General Sarwar Bari said the majority of women are stopped from voting by a mutual consensus among their elders and political candidates. Male leaders are influenced by political parties even the ones that seem secular such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf and Peoples Party, Mr. Bari said.

In total, 124 polling stations did not see any woman voter in 2013 despite 130,000 women voters being on the electoral rolls, according to Nighat Siddique, the additional director general for Gender Affairs at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Female voter turnout on 207 polling stations was less than 10% of the votes polled, Ms. Siddique said.

The response has been in the form of Section 9 in the Election Act 2017, which allows the ECP to nullify the election at one or more polling stations or in an entire constituency if the turnout of women voters is less than 10% of the votes polled in the constituency.

The results of general elections 2018 will demonstrate the practicality of this clause. However, Mr. Bari is not satisfied with the 10% threshold.

“In the 2014 by-election in Shangla, we didn’t find any woman in any polling station,” he said. “Later, we found out that ghost voters turned up in some of the female polling stations and voted on behalf of women.”

Mr. Bari said he believes that the threshold of 10% is very low and it should have been at least 25%. He claimed anyone can cast a vote on behalf of women especially in areas where men and women have joint polling stations such as in Darora in KP’s Upper Dir district.

The ECP has made arrangements to ensure such tactics are discouraged.

Ms. Siddique said the ECP has identified 20,000 polling stations that are sensitive. In identified areas, women voters were either zero or very few, she said. The ECP has installed CCTV cameras at the identified polling stations to keep an eye on the situation and identify individuals if anything (including restraining women from casting votes) happens, according to Ms. Siddique.

She said according to sections 170 and 174 of the Elections Act 2017 if anyone tries to stop women from voting, then they could face up to three years in prison or fines up to Rs. 100,000.

“We have sent a show cause notice to a person who claimed that female voting is not allowed in Islam and he will present his case in front of the Commission in a few days,” she said. “ECP is very committed to conduct free and fair elections.”

Missing women voters

For general elections 2018, women voters represent 44.1% of the electorate. Out of the around 105.9 million registered voters across the country, nearly 46.7 million are female, according to the ECP.

Source: Election Commission of Pakistan

ECP statistics show that women voters have increased by 9.1 million voters. In 2013, there were only around 37.6 million women among the 86.1 million registered voters — 43.6% of the total.

The slight increase is due a country-wide campaign for female voter registration launched by the ECP in collaboration with the National Database and Registration Authority. The campaign began after civil society organisations indicated that over 10 million women voters were missing from the electoral rolls.

Experts believe the key factor behind the gap between the number of registered male and female voters is that many women belonging to rural and tribal areas do not possess a Computerized National Identity Card, which is mandatory for registration of voters.

The ECP campaign mobilised unregistered women from 79 districts throughout the country and facilitated them to acquire identity cards. The campaign helped add 4.3 million new women voters to the voter lists in seven months, according to the ECP.

However, the issue of women being stopped from voting in parts of the country remains.

The ECP has also asked political parties to share the responsibility. The fear of result being cancelled even if a candidate wins the majority might get political leaders to take female voting seriously.

The are some positive signs, too. Women are contesting elections for national and provincial assembly seats from the Upper and Lower Dir for the first time. The Dir districts have often been in the national spotlight for stopping women from casting votes. In the National Assembly elections in 2013, only one woman had voted in Upper Dir and the female voter turnout for Lower Dir was 0.11% of the total. The presence of women candidates on the ballot is likely to change the norm.

Irum Fatima, the National Assembly candidate from Haripur, is also an example of women politicians seeking the women vote. Ms. Fatima said she aims to get the maximum number of women votes from her constituency on election day. Her goal could also help make history for the women of Nara Amazai.

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