Tomorrow, the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa go to the polls to elect new local bodies, exercising their hard-earned democratic right of casting ballots for leaders of their choice.
However, a dark shadow has been cast over these elections.
Daily newspaper reports of candidates, community elders and religious leaders conspiring to bar women from voting is a depressing reminder that aspects of Pakistan’s political culture remain far removed from the democratic ideals that have characterised the struggle for democracy in this country.
In a by-election in Lower Dir on May 7, local media reported that not a single woman out of 47,280 registered women voters cast her vote, following a decision by local leaders to ban women from voting.
Such practices have no place in a democratic society. They should be consistently rejected and challenged by all those who subscribe to the concept of multi-party democracy, and are committed to strengthening the democratic system in Pakistan.
There is no honour in barring women from voting. Pakistani women are serving in the armed forces and increasing numbers of women are joining the police; both are putting their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens and serve their country. Such noble sacrifice and contribution should be a source of national pride and not diminished by those misguided few who believe their gender disqualifies them from voting.
Rhetorical rejection alone will not be sufficient to prevent such practices from reoccurring. Sadly, this is not a new story but a recurrent theme of elections in Pakistan.
Legislation is required to make such practices illegal and we urge the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms to give due consideration to this in light of recent developments.
The glimmer of hope over the past couple of weeks has been the cacophony of protest and condemnation by local civil society organisations, their determination to expose what is happening in parts of KP, and the willingness of the media to bring such stories to the attention of a wider audience.
This is an encouraging sign. It sends a reminder to those who believe such practices can be justified on specious cultural grounds that others in Pakistan think differently of and are not prepared to stay silent.
Political party leaders in particular need to add to the chorus of condemnation and sanction those in their ranks who violate the basic democratic ethos of their respective party brands.
Doing nothing, or saying little, sends an equivocal message that inadvertently risks creating a permissive environment for the continuation and proliferation of such activities.
But, the consequences are much broader than this.
The disenfranchisement of women voters, and the conscious violation of their basic rights, makes it harder for Pakistan to articulate a credible narrative to the outside world of a country moving forward, of a democratic system evolving, of Pakistan’s desire to become an example of progress for others to emulate.
It calls into question what type of country Pakistan wants to be – a circumscribed democracy or a fully-fledged one, where the rights of all are a cherished part of the brand it wants to project to the rest of the world.
From a development perspective, banning women from voting, and preventing them from actively engaging in local decision-making processes, represents a self-inflicted wound which yields no gains.
Empirical evidence from dozens of countries around the world underlines the basic truth that accomplishing development goals is not possible if women are denied meaningful political participation.
No country will reach its full potential if its female citizens do not enjoy full equality. Take the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as an example. The countries which are making the most progress towards achieving the targets they set themselves under each MDG are the ones which have vibrant local government systems with an emphasis on participatory development, especially with regards to women.
Progress is being made through local actions by an eclectic mix of local actors working together and using their combined knowledge of local contexts to apply local solutions to local problems. When women are excluded from these processes a vital element is missing.
Also read: Women remain indoors as JI wins Dir by-poll
Newly elected local bodies in KP will be faced with an array of tough challenges – demands for improved service delivery, promoting community cohesion, adapting to, and mitigating, the effects of climate change, developing disaster risk reduction capacities and addressing the core development needs of their local communities. The devolution of sufficient political, financial and administrative powers, and developing the technical capacity of the elected officials and the local bureaucracy is only one part of the formula for success.
The active engagement of all members of local communities, particularly women, in decision-making processes is vital to improving living standards and ensuring sustainable development goals are met.
If women are denied their rightful role as key agents of change in local communities, the story in five years’ time, when the people of KP will hopefully once again go to the polls to elect representatives to local government bodies, risks being one structured around the themes of delayed development and unmet targets.
Such a story produces no winners.
Ban on women voters: Fresh elections demanded in 8 KP districts
In the challenging context of KP, this scenario would severely undermine collective efforts currently being undertaken by all stakeholders to promote stability in the province.
Without inclusive local governance arrangements the stabilisation objectives being pursued will be much harder to achieve.
Read this in Urdu here.