Across the border in India, a transformation took place on the political landscape in December last year. A young girl died after she was brutally raped and following many violent protests, it now appears that gender violence and women’s rights in that country have become a hot political issue which any aspiring politician would need to take a strong stance on.
On this side of the border, in Pakistan, election campaigning has been in full swing. Across party lines, one hears rhetoric on corruption, load-shedding and terrorism. But women’s rights? That’s tucked away somewhere half-way down party manifestos.
When Mukhtaran Mai was gang raped over a decade ago, the case made headlines in Pakistan. But it is 2013 now, and with elections around the corner, gender-specific issues – be it sexual harassment, domestic violence, freedom to work or other issues – are no closer to being on the radar of election hopefuls.
So why is it that if for no one else, female voters in Pakistan seem uninterested in taking women’s rights into account when it comes to their voting preferences?
VIDEO: What women voters want
Politicians complicit in perpetuating patriarchy
“Women follow in the footsteps of a man when they are giving their vote. It’s not a woman’s choice,” Mai tells Dawn.com. Now an activist, Mai explains that her workers have tried to go out and spread voter awareness amongst females in Punjab’s rural areas, only to be met by abuses from the men who said the activists were “spoiling” the women.
Dr Ali Cheema heads the Centre of Economic Research in Pakistan (Cerp), a research initiative which has carried out extensive work on collecting and analysing election-related data. Cheema, who is also an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums), concurs with the claim that a woman’s vote in Pakistan is likely to be exactly the same as her father’s, husband’s, or brother’s.
“(Political parties) don’t think of women, very frankly. And it’s not easy to, because the patriarchal system here is so strong – women who go out and vote, don’t vote differently.”
Just as significant as this voting pattern is the fact that political parties are complicit in perpetuating this exclusionary mode of electoral politics. Dr Cheema adds, “I saw Imran Khan on television the other day, declaring in a rally that he would educate the girls. But there wasn’t a woman to be seen in the crowd.” This points to the idea that political parties continue to work within existing systems of gender structures, making little or no attempt to change these. Even more significantly, in many areas, political parties come into agreements with local tribes or biradris to ensure that no woman actually makes it to a polling station – most likely because they don’t want to anger the male voter groups and potentially lose that vote bank.
Tahir Mehdi, the man behind Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focusing on policy and governance, agrees. Mehdi, who is currently travelling through rural Punjab to examine electoral patterns in different constituencies, says: “The whole family votes one way, and the political process just reinforces the status quo. This is the height of gender discrimination. All the candidates make a deal in advance. It also depends on the polling station’s area whose elders nobody wants to overrule.”
Women’s voting patterns, however, are not only related to systems of patriarchy. Anees Haroon, the Sindh caretaker minister for Human Rights and Women Development, says: “People are still caught up in their feudal, tribal or biradri affiliations; the majority of people don’t vote on issues. They vote for a candidate who belongs to their ethnic community.”
Haroon, who is also the former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), adds that “political parties come out too late with their manifestos. They don’t touch on issues like family planning. They work on the basis of rhetoric.”
What are political parties losing out on?
Make no mistake, the untapped vote bank lying out there – of registered female voters who don’t vote – has the potential to transform electoral politics, says Dr Cheema.
“Historically, once women get enfranchised, certain parties get a differential benefit… if you are able to get at women’s (voter) preferences, you can get more women to vote for you,” he explains. Dr Cheema adds that in the US, for example, by focusing on the issue of abortion, US President Barack Obama won the vote of the overwhelming majority of white women.
Most interestingly, while the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) has been unable to gather male and female voter turnout data from any previous election, Cerp used its own methodology to determine estimates – in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for example, only an estimated 15 per cent of registered female voters actually turned up to vote. The other 85 per cent could have actually considerably influenced election results.
The best example of this is potential voter turnout in Punjab. Estimates show that by tapping into the female vote bank, if even a five per cent swing takes place against any of the incumbent parties in Punjab – it would result in a 30 per cent change in seat representations.
In short, newer parties looking for potential voters – like the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) – or any parties looking to expand its vote bank would do well to look into a neglected voter group for improved chances of its own electoral victory.
Moreover, according to Fafen, difference between registered male and female voters is 10 million. If this gap is bridged even partially, millions of more women could become registered voters and be able to sway results in a number of constituencies.