The high cost of running for elections, fear of violence, discrimination and lack of support from political parties, and outdated social norms are some of the reasons preventing women from participating in the electoral process as candidates and as voters.
These views were expressed by activists and women’s rights groups on Friday at a session held to discuss women’s participation in politics in the run-up to the general elections scheduled for July 25. The discussion titled ‘Political Participation of Women and Electoral Violence’ was organised by the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women.
Speaking on the occasion, Nuzhat Shireen, the commission’s chairperson, said her organisation works to achieve gender equality in legislations as well as monitoring the implementation of such laws.
Shireen said it was important to hold a dialogue regarding the participation of women in the general elections as contestants and as voters because apart from nominating candidates for the reserved seats for women, political parties must also let them contest for general seats from constituencies where they stand a chance to win.
“Gone are the days when clerics used the pulpit to mislead people by saying that it was a sin to let women vote or jirgas passed judgments that those who let women in their families vote should be burnt alive as it was seen in the 90s,” she said.
Baqaullah Unar, the secretary for Women Development Department, said that the cost associated with participation in elections makes it more difficult for women to contest elections.
“I feel that the cost to contest, which is between Rs20,000 to Rs30,000, depending on the seat, is a lot, especially in cases of those communities which aren’t as privileged as others,” he said. “We must not let the class divide swallow elections as well.”
He recommended that a law should be enacted to make voting mandatory so that men cannot stop women from exercising their right to vote.
Resident Director of Aurat Foundation, Mehnaz Rehman, gave a brief history of women’s participation in politics and the ever-looming threat of violence.
Citing Article 25 of the Constitution, she said men and women have equal rights and can participate in elections as counterparts. However, despite being in power, women have been attacked in the past, she said, giving the example of late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was elected twice to run the country and fell victim to a terrorist attack; former minister Zille Huma, who was also killed in Gujranwala in 2007, and young activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived an attack in 2012.
“These attacks show that Pakistan has not been very safe for women aspiring to be activists or politicians, which is why it is important to ensure their participation [in election],” she explained.
Sharing some figures, Mehnaz said women’s participation has increased gradually over the years. Only one woman contested a general seat in 1977, but the number rose to 342 in 2013. “However, as compared to 2008, when 76 women made it to the National Assembly, there were just 70 female MNAs in 2013 on both reserved and general seats,” she said, adding that between 1990 to 1997, there were no reserved seats for women while for the past two elections, the number has been fixed at 60.
Speaking about electoral reforms this time round, Nighat Siddique, Additional Director General (Gender Affairs) for the Election Commission of Pakistan, said that the body is looking forward to more inclusive elections as it has mandated that all political parties must issue five per cent of their tickets for general seats to women.
Siddique further said that in order to ensure the participation of women, the results of any constituency which has a turnout of less than 10 per cent women voters would be declared null and void, and all presiding officers will be also required to share the numbers pertaining to women voters’ turnout as opposed to just the electoral roll.
“Preferential voting arrangements must also be made to cater to the elderly, expecting mothers and disabled people as well as members of the transgender community,” she said.
She further said that the ECP made sure that many women voters who did not have their NICs were able to access NADRA offices to get them made. “We facilitated women by providing them commute and were able to help 3.8 million women across the country to get their NICs so they may get registered as voters,” she said. However, even then there were areas, six of them in Karachi West, where women have never participated in elections because of prevailing social norms.
Calling out discrimination
Anis Haroon, member of the National Commission on Human Rights (NHCR), lauded the efforts made by the ECP, but said that it was disheartening to see the state paving way for political parties which have categorically shown sexism and misogyny in their policies.
“There are members of parliament who say that women come on ‘Kherati’ (charity) seats, ignoring the fact that there has been systematic oppression against women and there have been discriminatory rules which hamper their participation,” she said. “The election commission needs to make sure that there must be a level playing field so that there isn’t any need for reserved seats.”
She further said that removing the names of people from the Exit Control List so they can contest elections, while putting the names of few others to prevent participation must not be encouraged. “The ECP needs to hold all party heads responsible for the violence being incited in their advertisements which goes against the code of conduct of ECP,” she maintained.
Shahid Fiaz, CEO of the Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability, said that although the deficit is still there, in the 2013 elections, participation of 4.2 million more women voters was observed by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).
“However, this concept that only women from rural areas don’t participate isn’t entirely correct because the largest deficit was observed in Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad – all three being urban areas,” he said.
According to Fiaz, in 2008, there were 564 polling areas where the women voters’ turnout was less than five per cent. However by 2013, the number of such polling stations had reduced to half with some areas having even 91 per cent turnout of women voters.
Fiaz also said that although cases of violence directed towards women did not surface in 2013, any area which faced the brunt of violence saw a sharp decline in the number of women voters because they did not come out to vote due to fear.
He added that this tenure of government has seen a 40 per cent increase in the contribution of women in provincial and national assemblies as well as the Senate. Despite the various hurdles discussed by the speakers, the women representatives from political parties in attendance, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Pak Sarzameen Party and Pakistan Peoples Party, insisted that their parties have always been supportive and they did not face difficulties in organising themselves for elections.
However, independent candidate Nomi Bashir, who belongs to the Christian community, said that religious groups were discouraging her by telling her to step down.
“I am being told that it is futile for me to contest because I will not win,” she said. “Some people are telling me that they won’t vote for me due to my religious affiliation. I want to ask them that if a Christian can vote for a Muslim representative, why can’t Muslims do the same for us.”
Retired Justice Majida Rizvi said that the ECP must look into the fees candidates are required to pay because many women would be left behind due to this clause. She also mentioned that areas where women still can’t vote must be observed and explored so that 100 per cent participation can be seen in the next elections.