The Pakistani voter

November 1, 2020

The new voter list data has shockingly low numbers of women and transgender voters. This raises questions about their representation and participation in the electoral process

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has recently released the final and updated voter lists which shows that there are 115,748,753 registered voters in the country. As per ECP figures in these lists, the total number of registered voters has increased by 9,793,344 from 105,955,409 (announced for the last general elections).

The ECP data has been segregated gender-wise and provides details of the number of men and women voters registered as separate categories. The category of transgender persons’ votes is part of the data set released by the ECP, but the number of registered transgender voters is shockingly small. The available data covers cities including the federal capital Islamabad and provides consolidated statistics for the provinces.

According to the data, there are 64,078,616 men, 51,667,599 women and 2,538 transgender voters in the country. In the Punjab, there are 66,236,144 registered voters of which 36,371,326 are male, 29,862,932 female and 1,886 transgender. In Sindh, out of the 24,351,681 registered voters, 13,443,983 are male, 10,907,267 female and 431 are transgender.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there are 19,533,964 voters, including 11,076,630 male, 8,457,201 female and 133 transgender. Of the 4,801,131 registered voters in Balochistan, 2,753,946 are men, 2,047,104 women and 81 are transgender. In Islamabad, there are 825,833 registered voters of which 432,731 are men, 393,095 women and only seven transgender.

The low number of transgender voters in the federal capital raises the question whether the counting is done properly or not in the national census or during enrolment drives for inclusion in voter lists. The fact is that transgender community exists in much larger numbers in public spaces in the federal capital.

There is also a very large difference between the number of men voters and women voters. This varies from city to city and province to province. Men have clearly been registered as voters in significantly larger numbers than women. One reason cited for this is that many women do not have computerised national identity cards (CNICs) as many think they do not need those in the performance of their day-to-day activities. Over the last few years, getting a new CNIC automatically makes the applicant a voter in the ECP list and one does not have to go through any additional process.

Mumtaz Hussain, the Centre for Health and Gender Equality (CHANGE) executive director, claims that a major reason for this difference is that women are “comparatively less compelled” to have CNICs than men who have “to travel, do jobs, and undergo security checks more frequently”. Based on his work in different districts, he says he has observed that women hardly end up applying for CNICs to participate in the electoral process. In sharp contrast to this, however, they do so readily for reasons like contracting marriage, benefiting from financial support schemes like Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) or getting jobs, which are often “low-paid” and require “unskilled” labour.

Hussain tells TNS that it is quite common for people, especially in villages, to not send their daughters to schools as “they are expected to do household chores and assist parents in farm and home-based work”. They are also expected to be caregivers and to get married early. Boys, on the other hand, are “more often sent to schools and colleges for education” and hence “need” to have their identity documents.

Hussain says that during their CNIC-making drives in some areas they found that sometimes male members of the family oppose women getting CNICs out of “the fear that they may lay claim to inheritance rights”.

“This way they try to keep them out of the family tree in NADRA records,” he explains.

Arshid Mirza, who heads the non-profit organization, Baidarie, in Sialkot, says they helped around 50,000 women acquire CNICs in areas where women get their cards only for “urgent reasons” like “marriage registration”, “international travel”, and “transfer of property”. He recalls that there were women whose husbands had got jobs abroad, and apparently had wanted their spouses to join them there but the women did not have CNICs.

“It is quite common that marriages are not registered with the concerned authorities, and spouses live together without having official marriage documents”, he adds.

Mirza says that the UNDP had identified that there was a significant number of women (around 155,000) in their region who neither had CNICs nor were registered as voters, so his organisation took the initiative.

He points out that process one has to go through to acquire CNIC is quite cumbersome, and applicants are asked to provide several verified documents for processing.

“If you visit NADRA offices”, he says, “you find long queues of people, and unaccommodating NADRA staff that deter women from coming there for their purpose. This is one major reason why women voters are still in smaller number than men voters.”

Mirza suggests that the NADRA should simplify the process for registration of votes and increase the number of its offices, and counters at its centres serving the people. He says that although the NADRA has mobile registration vans, their number is limited. He cites the example of Sialkot where there are just four such vans to cater to the needs of the entire population of the city. Another issue that Mirza points out is that the mobile registration vans are “at the disposal of people from the ruling party who use these to increase their influence in the targeted areas” and that the “general people do not benefit from these”.

An ECP official however, says that they are “extremely conscious about non-registration of eligible women voters and have a gender wing to facilitate the process”.

“No doubt, the official says, there are some delays and difficulties but there are reasons behind that. For example, late registrations with the NADRA result in more documentation and higher fees which the applicants want to avoid. But, once a CNIC is issued, the vote is automatically registered. To overcome the gap, women [and transgender people] will have to be given a bigger role in the electoral process so that they are compelled to register themselves as voters.”

The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

The Pakistani voter