The National Assembly has recently passed the Electoral Reforms Bill 2017 that suggests allotting at least 5 per cent tickets to the female candidates. This will ensure more participation of women in the electoral process.
What to speak of the rural parts in the remote districts of Pakistan, even major cities of the country have witnessed low participation of females in the electoral process — both as candidates or voters during the last 70 years.
It has been observed that few women take part in elections for national or provincial assembly seats. A majority of those who contest lose with a big margin. Only few women have been able to make it to the assemblies in the last many decades and most of these parliamentarians had strong political backgrounds.
The last general election in 2013 was encouraging as around 450 women contested polls on general seats from all over the country. Of these, 147 contested for National Assembly seats while over 300 ran for provincial assemblies. The number was huge as compared to the general elections in 2008 and 2003 when 73 and 57 women ran for different assembly seats from all over the country, respectively.
Only six women could win their National Assembly seats while 10 could make it to the provincial assemblies from all over Pakistan in 2013 general elections. Badam Zari, a brave woman from the Bajaur agency, made headlines after she decided to contest for a National Assembly seat from her hometown and got 142 votes.
“Many women in rural areas of not only remote towns but even major districts do not come out of their homes on the day of polls. Women’s rights activists should arrange awareness campaigns at every union council to make sure no woman is stopped from casting her vote,” Zakia Mehboob, a teacher from the suburbs of Peshawar tells TNS.
“Law enforcement agencies should take prompt action in case of any report about a mutual deal between male candidates in an area to stop females from voting or contesting polls,” she says.
“The proposal of allotting 5 per cent seats to women is a significant step towards encouraging females to contest general elections,” she adds.
The situation about women voters in some parts of the country is even more disturbing. Despite awareness campaigns, measures by the Election Commission of Pakistan and different political groups, women in several areas could not make it to cast their vote during previous elections after men banned their entry into polling stations.
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In addition to women in the tribal areas, women in Dir, Buner, Shangla, Kohistan and many towns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab were also barred from casting their votes. The ban was imposed by the local elders and equally supported by the local leaders of different political parties.
Despite measures taken by the government and awareness created by the civil society ahead of polls for women to exercise their franchise, the turnout is always low. According to the ECP, only one woman out of the total 138,910 registered in NA-33 (Upper Dir) had exercised her right to vote in 2013.
Over 95 per cent of registered women voters in at least 17 National Assembly constituencies, according to the ECP, did not cast their votes in the 2013 general elections.
News reports say that in NA-152 (Multan), the turnout of women voters was as low as 1.92pc as only 75,422 out of 3.9 million women voters had cast their ballots. The turnout for male voters in the constituency was 2.13pc.
“In the political history of areas like Dir, Buner and Shangla, women have always been barred from voting not only by local elites but equally by the local political leadership. These elements do it on the pretext of local culture, propagating that allowing women to vote or contest will violate the cultural values,” says Shad Begum, founder of the Association for Behaviour and Knowledge Transformation and recipient of the International Women of Courage Award.
“The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) must set up separate polling stations with female staff inside and having a separate entrance for females. The ECP must also keep an eye on the local elements, especially the political leadership so they cannot bar women from voting by inking mutual agreements,” Shad suggests.
She adds that there must be a check on the vote registration process so that no woman is left unregistered and an educational campaign must be carried out well ahead of polls.
“The patriarchal system, their access to government departments for registration of vote or nomination, lack of access to political parties and inability to approach top political leaders are some reasons for low participation of women in KP, Fata elections as candidates and voters,” says Shahida Shah Kakakhel, co-founder of Khor, an organisation working for the rights of women.
She believes education, clarity of political concepts, awareness about the right to vote and the right to contest and providing facilities at polling stations will help increase the turnout of females as voters as well as candidates.
“Women’s participation can be improved through electoral reforms and support by the government and political parties. The government needs to hire female staff at NADRA, polling stations, and election commission for easy access for vote registration and nomination process for women,” says Kakakhel.
“A ban on spending huge amounts of money on campaigns will also encourage more women from modest and middle class families to participate in polls as candidates,” she adds.
She says women who are actively working for women’s issues should be encouraged to come forward and participate in the political process. “The access of political parties to women is very important as women feel insecure and do not reach out to any political party while independently many women cannot afford the election process as a candidate for general seat,” she maintains.