The areas up north falling in the conservative regions and tribal belt have long been in the news for imposing restrictions on women’s mobility and their participation in political processes. But this time, an area right in the midst of the acclaimed progressive Punjab has attracted attention for a similar reason. During the by-elections for provincial assembly seat in PP-23 of Talagang, Chakwal on April 18, not a single vote was cast by 11,128 registered women voters in 17 polling stations.
Reportedly, this was not a coincidence but a rather well planned move – where local influentials, politicians and elders reached a decision to stop women from voting in union councils Dhurnal and Dhonar.
A non-profit organisation Potohar Organisation for Development Advocacy (PODA), working in the area since 2003, had taken cognizance of this collusion and submitted an application with the Chief Election Commissioner, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on April 14, 2017 — four days before the by-polls. In this application, it had requested the ECP to ensure administrative and judicial arrangements for casting of women’s votes without any fear and hindrance in these union councils.
Despite this pre-emptive measure and request to the commission the required result could not be achieved.
It is difficult to establish the act of coercion as none of the rival parties is ready to accept the charge, neither any woman has dared complain about this. The explanation the local men give is that the decision not to vote was purely of women voters.
Naheeda Abbasi, Regional Manager, PODA, Chakwal, shares that their team had observed the same trend in local government elections held in their area in 2015. Back then too the registered women voters had not voted in these polling stations. She says an application was sent to the ECP then as well in which their plea was that the women voters had been deprived of their constitutional, legal and democratic right to vote and because of this restriction on them the election had not remained transparent.
In the past, locals hardly ever got women votes registered but now as soon as a woman acquires a new CNIC she is registered as a voter. That is why the number of registered women voters in this constituency has increased over time. “Women here participate actively in routine life, in farming, but when it comes to casting of votes, the tolerance level of men falls drastically,” says Abbasi.
On the contrary, Malik Yar Khan, Chairman, Union Council Dhurnal says, “Women refrain from voting themselves”.
According to him, the rival local groups engaged in vendettas and bloody feuds may quarrel if they feel their women are not being treated properly at polling stations. “Mere suspicion that someone from one group is eyeing a woman from the other group may trigger a fierce fight between them,” he says. “Due to these apprehensions women take a prudent decision and stay at home.”
Abbasi disagrees, and adds, “A lot of women passed by the polling stations on foot or on carts, heading to the fields for wheat harvesting and several female teachers and lady health visitors (LHVs) carried on with their election duties at the polling stations, but they did not cast their votes even though their names were on the voters’ list.”
Fauzia Viqar, Chairperson Punjab Commission on Status of Women (PCSW), tells TNS that she had received an application in this regard. She had asked the commission’s district coordinator to meet with the deputy commissioner of Chakwal, and apprise him of the issue and devise a strategy to persuade the locals not to restrict women from voting in the upcoming local elections. However, she says, “despite verbal commitments women did not cast votes in the said polling elections”.
Viqar has handled similar tricky issues in the past. “I once went to meet people in Khanewal to convince them to allow their women to vote in the elections. It was an all-men gathering and they did not allow even a single woman to come to the place where the meeting was underway. After long deliberations they agreed they would allow their women but when the day arrived no woman turned up at any polling station to cast vote. In every such case the local men say there was no bar on women, and that women themselves refrained from voting.”
Zahid Husain Mogla, a lawyer in UC Dhonar, cites logistical reasons as an excuse. He says, “It is difficult to bring women voters to the polling stations that are one to two kilometres away from their houses. Nobody bothers to ensure women’s presence as none of the contesting parties depend on their votes; it’s the men’s votes that affect the results in these UCs,” he says. “In by-polls, the level of interest is even lower because it is a one-sided contest with odds on side of the ruling party candidate.”
Altaf Khan, ECP spokesman says the commission does take notice of applications where undue influence is exerted on voters and takes action if there is sufficient evidence to establish it. “In this case too, irrefutable evidence will be needed.”
Khan refers to an ECP decision under which it had declared by-elections in PK-95, a constituency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), null and void in May 2015 for the reason that none of the 53,000 registered women voters had cast their votes and ordered re-elections.
The decision cited by Khan was set aside by the Peshawar High Court and the election results were restored. The plea taken by the counsels was that the people challenging the elections were not the aggrieved party.
Viqar believes the situation will improve only if there is a law on annulment of election results if the turnout of women voters is less than a benchmark set for this purpose. She shares “MNA Nafeesa Shah has suggested there should be at least 10 per cent turnout of women voters for an election to be valid. This formula shall also be applicable on turnout at polling station level.”
“Once the National Assembly passes this law, the mere turnout figures will decide the fate of such elections and excuses like women themselves refrain from voting will not matter at all,” says Viqar.
The ECP spokesman tells TNS that though there is no specific law or rule under which they can intervene in case of low or zero turnout of women voters, they can take notice of suspicion of undue influence exerted by anyone to affect the pattern of voting. He says in case of PK-95 election, the ECP had taken suo motu on the basis of news reports and sought explanations from different parties. “It was again common sense to believe that all 53,000 registered women voters in the constituency had refrained from voting of their own free will.” The ECP decision implied that only a spell of hypnotism could make such a large group act in a particular way if there was no restriction imposed on women’s voting, he adds.