The provisional census results have put forth important statistics that tell us a lot. Apart from fresh delimitation of constituencies, these also mean fresh electoral rolls for the next general election. Comparing the gender ratio of the census results with the electoral rolls recently released by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the number of women missing in the electoral rolls is close to ten million. The ECP itself puts the gap between male and female registered voters at 12 million.
This is a huge figure by any standards. Apart from affirming that women are political non-entities, it says a lot about the status of women as citizens of this country. Most stakeholders agree that women are disenfranchised on this scale because they do not have computerised national identity cards (CNICs), which is a mandatory condition to vote in the election. Thus voting which is a basic right of every citizen becomes a responsibility instead because the citizens have to apply for and seek a CNIC from Nadra before they can become eligible to vote.
Clearly, something is deterring the women in this country from seeking a CNIC which effectively keeps them from participating in the most important political activity called election. Note that the census figures and the electoral rolls confirm that most men in this country become voters after the age of 18 because most men manage to get their CNICs.
There are people who may claim that even the women who are registered as voters do not vote and that a qualitative survey along those lines would help understand the problem better. But when you talk about gender, numbers matter. The qualitative change in gender terms across the world has only come about by affirmative action — in the shape of quotas as policy.
But here, we are only talking about a fundamental right.
There now are declarations made by some civil society organisations and the ECP that this gap needs to be bridged to make more women eligible to vote in the 2018 election. The next date by when the ECP will update the electoral rolls is in April 2018 which means there is only a little over four months to enroll more women as voters.
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This is too short a time. Tabeer, an Islamabad-based programme working on democratic processes in Pakistan, has conducted an extensive research on the issue. According to data collected over the last five years, Nadra has issued CNICs to about 2,500 women every day. According to Tahir Mehdi, Election’s Lead with Tabeer, “The new women entrants are 3500 per day. So a gap of 1000 is created per day and then there is accumulated gap of women who are over 18 and unregistered.” As per a document prepared by Tabeer, if Nadra doubles its pace and starts issuing 5000 CNICs to women per day — 3500 new and 1500 who are already in that age group — it will still take it 18 years to “clear the gender gap in electoral rolls”.
At this rate, it seems really difficult if not impossible to remove the entire gap for the election 2018. But in a recent statement, the ECP claims to have started a campaign, which is a collaborative effort of ECP, Nadra and civil society organisations at the grassroots level, for female NIC and voter registration. The campaign is “targeting unregistered women in 79 districts across the country”.
Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson National Commission for Status of Women, is not surprised to see the number of missing women voters because “with the mindsets we have, it is not considered important for a woman to get a CNIC. Then we also have seen the pattern in many places where women are not even allowed to come to vote. This is why it is important that they are provided this opportunity to get a CNIC and be able to vote.
“It should be treated as an emergency. The Commission is campaigning as to how can we facilitate and speed up this process. Whether we can do it or not [by 2018] is a challenge but we all agree to treat this as a priority. It is a crucial time for everyone concerned to be on board.”
With this kind of commitment, it is important to first see the obstacles that hinder women from getting the CNICs as well as to vote. Tabeer categorises them under three heads. One, cultural reasons that are more peculiar to certain regions, where men prevent women from getting their CNICs and also to vote. Two, the real practical administrative issues where name changes, divorce, etc., hinder the issuance of CNICs to women. And three, Nadra’s capacity to issue them.
Is one factor more important than the other? Mehdi thinks, “it’s a combination of factors that varies from area to area. For instance, in lower Dir or Kohistan, even if Nadra has an office in each village, there will still be problem and men may prevent women from getting the CNICs. In Faisalabad district, there are only seven centres which are clearly not enough.
“In central Punjab’s less conservative areas, it doesn’t look like women are barred but here it’s the documentation and Nadra’s capacity that are big issues. Like, if the Nadra office is 50 or 70 kilometres away from a village, nobody will take pains to take the women in the family to get their cards made.”
So who is responsible to undertake this gigantic task which is still not even properly comprehended and recognised as a problem? Nadra’s capacity is indeed an issue but, as Mehdi says, according to its own constitution, “it’s an authority and whosoever applies will get a CNIC. It is not legally bound to reach out to people. It is the interior ministry’s responsibility to capacitate Nadra”.
Babar Yaqoob Fateh, secretary ECP, says, “In future, every new CNIC that is made will enable a person to become a voter. He or she has to tell in writing that where he wants to be registered. That information will be conveyed to our district election commissioner. But registration of vote is the responsibility of ECP. It cannot be given to Nadra.”
He says the discrepancy is more pronounced in underdeveloped areas like Mirpur Khas in Sindh, Rajanpur in Punjab, areas in KP and Balochistan, “but 0.8 million women in Lahore are not registered as voters”.
Fateh says the ECP has a criteria that any such areas where the registration of women is less than 40 per cent as compared to men, “that is considered a red line for us. We have mapped all this. We have launched a project in 79 such districts where we are working in collaboration with Nadra and Civil Society Organisations.”
The ECP has divided unregistered women voters in three categories of areas. Of these, it has left out areas that are difficult to reach and selected those that are relatively more comfortable instead — “low lying fruit” as the secretary likes to put it. This means they prefer the 0.8 million women missing voter in Lahore than the 2000 in say Kohlu.
So what’s the best way to motivate women to vote? Both Mehdi and Fateh agree that it’s the job of political parties.
“If they are mobilised, they have the best capacity to do this. The NGOs and civil society can make a very marginal effect. The problem is that women’s participation in politics is still considered as the auxiliary of men’s participation,” says Tahir Mehdi.
Fateh concurs that the only thing missing in their efforts is “support from political parties. In Australia, voting is mandatory; here it is a voluntary activity. We have written to heads of 18 political parties to come with us. We have enacted a law that any constituency where the women votes polled are less than ten per cent, the result will be considered void.”
Khawar Mumtaz underscores the critical importance of women “for the political process and for political parties. It is the women’s votes that can sway the result and make the candidates sensitive towards what the women in Pakistan want from their elected representatives.”
One wonders how concerned are the political parties about their female constituency which is half the population.