Sunday, May 24, 2015

ABOLISHING WOMEN VOTERS’ APARTHEID

By Shad Begum[1]


Women voters in Dir Lower district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been consistently deprived of their voting rights since 1985. Women voters in other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa face similar situation with some variations. The Peshawar High Court took a Suo Moto action on some media reports that women voters in Nowshehra and Lakki Marwat constituencies were barred to vote, and the PHC stayed the results of the two constituencies in May, 2013 General Elections. Even more recently, the Daily Ayeen reported that some local Jirgas (council of elders) at Peshawar have reached agreements that women shall not vote in the forthcoming Local Government Elections scheduled for May 30, 2015 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has taken a Suo Moto action on some media reports that not even a single woman voter cast her ballot in PK-95 Dir Lower II’s by-elections on May 7, 2015.  The ECP has directed the contesting candidates and some civil society activists, including myself, to appear before the ECP and record their statement as to whether the non-voting by women in PK-95 was a freedom of choice, a coincidence or a pre-planned understanding that women shall not participate in voting. The inquiry proceeding is still in process with additional witnesses to appear before the ECP. It is indeed a great hope that the ECP has taken a Suo Moto action on media reports that women were barred to vote and the decision of the ECP will have far reaching consequences on the behaviour of the Jirga’s and contesting candidates who discourage women from casting their ballots.

There is no written agreement this time in PK-95 to exclude women from voting as was the case in May, 2013 elections, wherein a written agreement surfaced on various websites that showed the signatures of the contesting candidates and some witnesses. Although the signatories as fraudulent contested the authenticity of the agreement of May 10, 2013 in PK-95 because no original copy could be produced in the Court; however, the fact that no single woman cast her vote was a substantial proof that there was some sort of understanding by the local political leadership to exclude women from voting. I myself contested the Local Government Elections in 2001 as an independent candidate and faced the brunt of opposition from various quarters, but despite the negative propaganda against me, I was elected by the electorate as Tehsil Councillor.

There are a number of challenges that discourage the participation of women voters in the elections. The establishing of joint polling stations for men and women voters, wherein the polling booths are separate, but the entry and exist points of the polling stations are not separate. Some political parties’ and their workers use indecent methods to discourage women from entering to the polling stations e.g. the presence of men on the entry points and the absence of women police in the premises. The polling schemes established in a way that is less conducive for women voters in casting their ballots. The women voters’ apartheid is strengthened by the following factors:
  • Local leadership of political parties is not interested to involve women in the political processes at local level.
  • The social structure is male-dominated leaving women disempowered in majority of public processes including politics.
  • Majority of women are economically dependent, which is also one of the major reasons that stop them from taking part in the political process as candidates.
  • Cultural values of discrimination against women are used as a shield to disenfranchise and dis-empower women as voters and candidates.
  • Low literacy rate and lack of opportunities for women lead to lack of interest in politics among women.
  • Security concerns and appointment of male presiding officers in women polling stations discourage women participation during voting.
  • Polling stations are established at un-manageable distances from women voters and joint polling stations discourage women participation in voting.
  • A large segment of women population do not have national identity cards (CNICs), which disenfranchise them in the political process.
  • The lack of adequate arrangements for women with children standing in queue for hours on Election Day is another factor that discourages women participation in the electoral processes.

In order to address these challenges, the following important measures are needed: 
  • That the Parliament of Pakistan should enact legislation that declares all those elections invalid wherein voting by women falls below 10% of the total registered women voters in any constituency.
  • That any attempt, written or verbal agreement to bar women voters is made a criminal offence throughout Pakistan.
  • That the top leadership of all political parties should take disciplinary action against their local leadership in areas where they enter into verbal or written agreements to disenfranchise women from voting.
  • That the Election Commission of Pakistan must fulfil its constitutional responsibility to conduct free and fair elections, which means to take all such measures that ensure the unhindered and free participation of all voters, including women, in the voting process, and to provide such spaces for polling votes, which do not hinder women from casting their votes. These measures shall include arrangements by the election officials i.e. the District Returning Officer and others; to make sure that the polling arrangements for men and women voters are made in a culturally sensitive and appropriate ways.
  • That the government, through the District Administration, make special arrangements to keep watch on speeches and statements by people who declare women voting as un-Islamic and take appropriate action against those who disenfranchise women from voting.
  • That the Election Commission of Pakistan appoints Special Observer Teams to monitor the elections and make sure that the polling arrangements for voting are conducive for free and unhindered movement of women voters, especially in areas having a pattern of women voters’ disenfranchisement through local agreements.





[1] Ms. Shad Begum, belonging to Dir Lower district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a woman social entrepreneur working for the economic, political and social empowerment of women since 1994. She is the founder member and Executive Director Association for Behaviour & knowledge Transformation  (ABKT), an Ashoka Fellow, and in recognition of her extraordinary work for the rights of women, she has been awarded several national and international awards, including the International Woman of Courage Award by the US State Department. She has remained a district councillor in Dir Lower during 2001-2005, after winning the election on a general seat as an independent candidate.  She is on the Advisory Boards of several prestigious international women organisations and is also a member of the UN Strategic Guidance Group of the N-Peace Network, a global network of women peacemakers around the world.