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Be heard: The Power of Women Voters

July 10, 2018
By Hafsah Sarfraz

Women across the world have had to fight for their right to vote. It took almost a hundred years for women....

Women across the world have had to fight for their right to vote. It took almost a hundred years for women in developed countries around the globe to achieve this right. It is perhaps for this reason that even today, when women have the authority, they often don’t exercise it. What they often forget is that their votes are crucial in ensuring that their voices are heard in the political and decision making process, which affect their lives in parliaments and beyond.

Despite knowing that one of the simplest steps in this new age of democracy is getting women to vote, Pakistan still struggles to get its women to come out and vote. Almost 48.8 per cent of Pakistan’s entire population comprises of females. Yet, the female voter turn out is consistently low. A recent finding revealed that 4 million women in Balochistan will not be able to cast their votes in the upcoming elections as only 1.8 million women are registered voters of the 5.8 million women in the region. And, these are the statistics for Balochistan only; rural areas in Southern Punjab, KP and Sindh have it worse.

If these are the statistics today, one can only imagine what it was like a few years ago when the awareness was low and there was no support to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Today, the situation is a lot different. The ECP is supported to run campaigns alongside international donor agencies, INGOs, corporate sector’s social responsibility divisions and the civil society. Even then, increasing the number of women voters is a daunting task. Let’s look at the challenges of getting women vote.

Their voices matter...

In the 2013 elections, around 15 million women went to the polling stations. The voter turnout for women was recorded near an unprecedented 40 per cent of all votes. Unfortunately, there are no comparative figures for the previous elections but it is assumed that this was one of the highest women turnouts in any election. Yet, there were 500 polling stations where not even a single woman voted.

Besides patriarchy holding women back, there are a number of challenges and hurdles that women face when it comes to voting. Especially when it comes to rural areas of Southern Punjab and Sindh, there are still women who are not allowed to vote since the 1960s. Though there are no legal restrictions, they are stopped from voting by their husbands and fathers due to the deep-rooted patriarchy in their culture. However, the situation is improving. One of the parliamentarians from a local political party, Aisha Syed, recently specified that women in Dir, KPK would vote in this year’s election - a drastic change from the last four decades when women were kept out of the voting process in many KP districts.

The challenges that hold women back from voting in urban areas are very different. Lack of facilities for elderly and pregnant women and general hardship even in urban areas discourage women to cast their vote. But what is even more unfortunate is that women have also started believing that their voices are not going to affect change. Party leaderships have to focus on the value of female enfranchisement to increase the recruitment of women candidates from diverse backgrounds, and to truly make them believe that their voice is going to make a difference.

Encouraging women to vote

The last election saw many firsts and one of them was that the number of women voters at every level was counted for the first time. This was done by the ECP with support of UN Women and this initiative was a part of the broader series of efforts to increase women’s awareness about their right to vote to increase female voter registration and encourage them to cast their ballot.

ECP also initiated a ‘Female NIC and Voter Registration Campaign’ in 79 districts of Pakistan in the later part of 2017. The initiative targeted 880,000 women and mobilised them to NADRA registration centres for acquisition of NIC. This effort was undertaken in the hopes to bridge the gap between male and female voters of the country.

At the same time, ECP has conducted surveys of polling stations to ensure that they are accessible for people with disabilities. Moreover gender sensitive checklist for polling scheme has also been shared with Provincial Governments to facilitate women to accessible polling station.

ECP has developed a consortium of 8 universities (two from each province) to motivate youth and to engage them as agents for mobilising women. It is encouraging more and more women to join so that a gender-based environment could be created.

Last year, the amendment to section 103AAA enhanced powers of the ECP, enabling it to hold a summary inquiry if it gets reports of irregularities in conduct of an election and declare the poll in such constituency null and void. These efforts are hoping to increase female voter turnout in the upcoming elections.

The integral helping hands

While the ECP has put in a lot of effort this year, the international donor agencies have been serving as integral helping hands in trying to increase women voters and encourage their voices. The ECP’s Women NIC and Voter Registration Campaign resulted in an increase of 4.9 million women voters registered between May 2013 and September 2017. Supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the first phase of these interventions was implemented by a select number of Free and Fair Election Network’s (Fafen) member organisations across the country. This phase covered identification and listing of one million unregistered women in 24 districts, which successfully concluded in April.

ECP, with the support of international partners including USAID, UNDP, and in partnership with civil society organisations and political parties has been leading efforts to increase the inclusion of women in the electoral process. This includes support for ECP’s newly established Gender and Disability Electoral Working Group to guarantee that women are represented throughout the organisation at leadership roles. ECP has also started campaigns on conducting voter and civic education.

Similarly, Oxfam in Pakistan is working in specific provinces to ensure women, youth, persons living with disabilities and excluded groups like transgender and religious minorities are brought into the fold of the voter’s lists, are trained and motivated to demand political parties represent these groups’ distinct needs. Oxfam and partners are advocating that political parties have sensitised manifestoes and in their candidate selection has representation of these neglected groups. They are also using social mobilisation for formation of women led groups, neighbourhood awareness through street theatre and mass media radio and television public service messages that stresses inclusion and representation.

In the previous elections, ECP and UN Women led a public awareness campaign coupled with direct outreach to women through local civil society networks. Seminars and community fairs were held in all district election commission offices as well as in colleges and universities to target youth and mobilise young women to register as voters. As a result of these efforts, over one million women were reached out. UN Women also supported civil society organisations in every province, to conduct voter education with a specific focus on women, marginalised groups, minorities and people with disabilities.

Civil society’s efforts

Social activists and the civil society have also channelised their efforts in increasing awareness about the importance of women votes. Bargad Organisation for Youth Development has launched a project, ‘Youth for peaceful elections’ that is engaging university students for diffusing electoral violence related to prospective elections. Its goal is to promote youth engagement and youth-led actions for peaceful elections in Pakistan. They are running student-led actions and campaigns in 10 universities, higher education institutions and local communities of Punjab and KP provinces on the issues of electoral violence, women electoral participation and hate-speech on social media related to elections with the hashtags #HerVote and #PeacefulElections. The project is preventive in nature. Under this, Bargad is providing orientation to 200 students (20 each from 1 campus) and assisting them in planning and executing 100 social action projects (SAPS) in respective universities (10 SAPs each from 1 campus) and local communities. The trainings have been conducted in University of Gujrat, University of Education, Lahore; COMSATS Sahiwal, University of Sargodha, GIFT Univeristy, Gujranwala and University of Swat.

Pakistani politician and leader of a local party, Bushra Gohar has actively and effectively campaigned to have the ECP rule set that requires re-election in case women are barred from voting.

In addition to that, Nighat Dad and Shmyla Khan at the Digital Rights Foundation are tracking harassment of female politicians, political activists and their supporters.

These efforts by the civil society and activists may be small steps in the right direction but they give us hope for a day when more women will feel like their vote and voice can make a difference.

What women say?

It is understandable when women in rural areas can’t vote due to patriarchy and pressure from the men in their lives. But it is so unfortunate that a lot of educated and independent women living in urban areas choose to not vote, too. They may have their reasons but it shows that they are losing faith in the political process or are apathetic about politics, which is a negative sign on its own.

Ayesha, a university teacher, tells this scribe that she has decided to not vote this time. “In 2013, I went out to vote while I was seven months pregnant and I had a horrible experience. I had to wait in the line with other citizens for two hours in the extreme heat and almost fainted. The experience scares me even today and I don’t want to feel that pain again with two infants,” she shares.

This shows that polling stations need to be comfortable for pregnant women and the elderly. Perhaps a separate line for them and more facilitation will give them the encouragement they need to cast their vote.

Nazia, a domestic helper, states that last time she voted for a political party that everyone raved would bring a change but seeing the progress in the past five years has made her lose hope. “No one thinks about those in the lower class - the rich keep getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It makes me so disappointed that I don’t want to vote,” she says.

Medical student Isbah Khurram tells that she won’t be voting because she’s still not registered. “I was unaware that I had to register by the 2nd April but even if I was registered I don’t think I would have voted because I feel it is useless and won’t help the country. Politics and the government are not bettering the country in any way. It is being used for personal gains,” laments Isbah.

An HR professional, Amna Moeen, on the other hand believes that everyone should vote because it is their right as citizens of a country. “I will not be dictated or manipulated. Not voting allows political parties to use your vote against your consent in this country and I do not allow that,” she claims.

Senator Sherry Rehman says that the blatant disregard for a woman’s constitutionally protected and fundamental right to vote in Pakistan is deeply disturbing and saddening. “The Senate’s decision to unanimously pass the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill last year was a milestone for women’s suffrage in Pakistan. Barring women from exercising their right to vote is a criminal offence and that must be made clear. I am very happy to see how it has been implemented so far and I am hopeful that one day we will no longer have to talk about this issue,” she shares.

It is impossible to accomplish development goals if women are denied meaningful political participation. No country can reach its optimal potential if its female citizens are denied full equality. Countries that are succeeding today have involved women in the decision-making processes and that is improving their living standards and ensuring development. While the state has a responsibility to put in effort, individual women also have a responsibility on them to use their right to vote and play a rightful role as a key agent of change.