Islamabad — Women voters turned up at polling stations in force to cast their votes for Pakistan’s general elections on 25 July.
Even in conservative areas where women were historically not allowed to participate in political activities, the female voter turnout was significant, according to Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) records.
One in three registered women voters cast their votes in Upper Dir’s National Assembly constituency NA-5. A total of 67,995 women voted in the constituency — a first such display of women voting since the 1970s.
In comparison, in the 2013 general elections only one woman had voted in the old Upper Dir constituency NA-33, according to a news report.
The highest women voter turnout for the National Assembly elections was recorded in Sindh’s Thar district.
In NA-221 Thar-I, 73% of registered women voters cast their votes. The constituency’s overall turnout (69%) was also higher than the average voter turnout (48%) of all Sindh National Assembly constituenies. The Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) candidate Pir Noor Muhammad Shah Jillani won from this constituency.
Neighbouring Thar constituency NA-222 also witnessed a 71% women voter turnout. The PPPP’s Mahesh Kumar Malani won from there.
In Punjab, the highest female voter turnout was 64% in NA-98 Bhakkar-II where the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf won the seat. NA-1 Chitral saw 62% women registered voters participate in the elections — the highest female voter turnout for any Khyber Pakhtunkhwa constituency.
This was the first time the ECP counted women votes separately on polling day and released gender disaggregated statistics for votes polled.
In 95% of the 268 National Assembly constituencies for which gender disaggregated voter data was made available by the ECP, the women voter turnout was 25% or higher. For 126 of these 268 constituencies, 50% or more women registered voters cast their votes.
One major reason for the increased women participation might be a condition in the Elections Act 2017 that authorised the ECP to cancel the results of a constituency where women were restrained from voting.
Section 9 of Act indicates that if the “turnout of women voters is less than ten percent of the total votes polled in a constituency”, the ECP can presume that women were restrained from voting and declare the results of the constituency or some of its polling stations as null and void.
The provision in the law was intended to prevent women from being barred from voting through an agreement among village elders and male candidates.
In only two constituencies, the share of women voters hovered around the 10%-mark. These were Shangla NA-10 and North Waziristan NA-48.
ECP’s Additional Director General (Gender Affairs) Nighat Siddique told Media for Transparency that the commission registered all complaints they received regarding low female voter turnout.
“The commission is noting down all the areas and will take action accordingly,” Ms. Siddique said.
“Increased turnout by women may not reflect real political empowerment,” Sarah Khan said. “The latter is far more difficult to achieve through legal means and requires political and civil society actors to step in.”
In its official notification, the ECP did not withhold the results of NA-10 and NA-48 indicating it was satisfied with the women voter turnout there.
However, the constituency-wide representation of women voters might not be the best way to approach the matter.
Sarah Khan, a researcher who looks at gender and democratic representation in South Asia, said agreements to restrain women from voting are often made at a local level rather than for an entire constituency.
“The law could be more effective by pinpointing polling stations, rather than constituencies with less than 10% women’s turnout,” she said. “The numbers at the constituency level may mask important within-constituency variation.”
Ms. Khan, who is a political science PhD candidate at Columbia University, said Section 9 of the Act is well-intentioned and appears to have served as a deterrent against restraining women from voting in some of the problem areas from the 2013 election.
“However there remain concerns that while women participated, they were coerced to do so just to meet the threshold and avoid the chance of a re-poll,” she said, citing a news report about pressure on women to vote.
Although the women turnout appears to have increased as compared to anecdotal evidence from the 2013 general elections, the share of votes cast by women in the 2018 elections was still lower than the share of votes by men in most National Assembly constituencies.
The gender gap in voting was most stark in 12 National Assembly constituencies where the ratio of male voters to female voters was three to one or higher.
All of these constituencies are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjoining tribal areas. Three are in Swat district, two in Peshawar district, and one each in Buner, Shangla, Battagram, North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Khyber Agency.
Only in one National Assembly constituency — NA-64 Chakwal-I — more than half of the votes cast were by women voters.
The gender gap in polled votes indicates that turnout alone is not indicative of women’s political participation on Election Day.
“Increased turnout by women may not reflect real political empowerment,” Ms. Khan said. “The latter is far more difficult to achieve through legal means and requires political and civil society actors to step in.”
She said politicians and candidates can use their influence in a more positive way by engaging in dialogue on norms surrounding women’s participation in the run-up to the elections, actively targeting their campaigns to women, and reaching out to women through female political workers.
The ECP administration claimed logistics could have played a part in increasing the gender gap in voting in some areas.
“There were some hard areas where polling stations were same for male and female voters but with separate voting booths,” Ms. Siddique. “It was because of the lack of polling staff in those areas.”
Ms. Khan said it is understandable that in areas where women face challenges to vote it is probably difficult to find women polling staff for long shifts.
“So there’s a need to think of creative solutions for the next time,” she said.
The gender disaggregated turnout data could prove useful in coming up with interventions.
“It’ll be important to analyse this data at the polling station level, identify areas with large gender gaps in turnout and target those areas for interventions in the lead-up to the next elections,” Ms. Khan said.
She said the ECP’s Gender and Disability Working Group has already carried out similar efforts regarding women’s voter registration previously.
“The next step is to design and implement initiatives to improve turnout,” she said. “It’s important to note that this is not entirely the ECP’s ambit and requires work from political and civil society actors on the ground.”
Note: Elections were held on 270 of the National Assembly’s 272 constituencies. The analysis for this article only included data from 268 constituencies. Gender disaggregated data was not available in the Form 47 for NA-125 and the scanned copy of the same form for NA-188 was illegible.
Featured Image: Women cheer during an election campaign event in Khairpur, Sindh. Photo courtesy: Nafisa Shah’s official Twitter account