Nighat Siddique, ECP’s Additional Director General of Gender Affairs, was speaking at a dialogue, organised by Sindh Commission on Status of Women (SCSW) in association with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) on political participation of women and electoral violence, here on Friday. The seminar was attended by women candidates — independent and those contesting elections from different party platforms — and civil society activists.
Ms Siddique shed light on the regulations that were meant to facilitate women, transgenders and the disabled so that their participation in polling process increased. “This is for the first time that facility of postal ballot has been introduced for the disabled, and by law, the presiding officers have been required to not make transgenders, disabled, senior citizens and women with medical conditions wait in queues if they come to vote,” she said adding that as many as 300 polling stations across the country were being tested for visually impaired voters, where the voters will have facility of ballots and instructions printed in Braille.
‘We need to educate women candidates about the technicalities of the electoral process’
Ms Siddique told the audience about the usefulness of Section 9 of the Elections Act which empowers the ECP to declare a poll void if women voters’ turnout is less than 10 per cent.
“An election at PK-95 Lower Dir district was declared void because the local communities reached an agreement to not let their women vote. The commission, along with civil society, held negotiations with the community and informed them that this will keep happening if the women were kept out of the process,” she said, adding that the re-poll had significantly larger number of women coming to vote, crossing the 10pc threshold set by law.
She informed that as many as 26 polling stations in Karachi’s district West alone had zero turnout of women voters in 2013 due to cultural barriers, and hoped that subsequent legislation and measures taken by ECP will eventually bridge this gap.
Nuzhat Shirin, chairperson of SCSW, highlighted the past incidents of women being barred from voting in different areas of the country. Recalling an incident of 1996, she regretted the fact that over 50,000 women in Sindh’s Thatta district didn’t vote because the family men didn’t let them participate in the political process.
“There are a number of reasons for [low] numbers of women’s participation. These [include] misogynistic practices deeply rooted in society, due to which men from opposing groups agree that no women will be [allowed] to vote”, she said, adding that the recent legislation empowering ECP to declare a poll void if less than 10pc registered women in the area didn’t come out to vote, was a positive step.
Highlighting another reason of lesser number of women contesting and winning as independent candidates, she was of the view that most women, even those contesting elections, didn’t know the technicalities behind polling agents and other relevant matters. “We need to not only educate the society about letting women vote, but also need to educate the women candidates about the technicalities of electoral process”, she said.
‘Pakistan a trendsetter’
Mahnaz Rahman, resident director of Aurat Foundation, said that Pakistan was a trendsetter in the Muslim world when it came to women’s participation in elections and the parliament. Under Section 206 of Elections Act 2017, political parties are required to issue at least 5pc of the general tickets to women. This means that every party needs to give at least 14 general tickets of the National Assembly to women.
“A lot more needs to be done, however, and this requires constant efforts by civil society and political parties”, she said, highlighting that the distribution of tickets was generally marred by issues of nepotism and bias.
Shahid Fiaz, CEO of Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability (TDA) said that the non-availability of toilets, seating arrangements and other amenities at polling stations was a major cause which discouraged women from coming to vote. “Apart from that, there’s a tendency in women to leave the polling station to not come back if any mishap occurs, whereas men either don’t leave the facility entirely, or come back shortly afterwards”, he said while quoting different studies.
Citing another study by Fafen, Mr Fiaz informed that the largest deficit of unregistered women voters was in Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad, respectively. “These are the major urban centres of the country, whereas there’s a myth that this would be the case only in the rural areas”, he said.
Speaking to Dawn after the session, Ms Siddique conceded that a wide gap existed between the male and female unregistered voters, with as many as 12 million women who were initially identified as being out of electoral rolls. “We have been working with Nadra and different NGOs and due to aggressive efforts, we have registered about 3.8 million women, whereas approximately eight million still remain to be included in the rolls”, she said.
“We are in close collaboration with civil society and communities, whereby we coordinate with Nadra to send mobile registration vans (MRVs) to remote areas to facilitate registration of more women voters”, she said. “One Nadra centre can register as many as 60 women in a day, whereas one MRV can register as many as 65. We have asked Nadra to allocate at least two registration centres in every city for registering women only; hopefully, we will be able to bridge the gap by next elections”, she added.
She expressed hope that regulations facilitating the women voters will result in a higher turnout of women this time.
On the occasion, women candidates — both independent and contesting under the platform of different political parties — expressed their views and the hurdles they faced in electioneering because of their gender, religion, and due to lack of funds required for the campaigns in today’s highly expensive and competitive electoral arena.