Women’s electoral rights

June 02, 2016


THE decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to set up a working group for promoting women’s electoral rights through partnership with civil society organisations is sound in principle. However, the first reports of the group’s working suggest the need for greater clarification of the project and of its place in the overall scheme of the electoral reforms under way.

The Gender and Disability Electoral Working Group, headed by an additional director-general of the ECP, a woman made responsible for gender affairs, has invited many civil society organisations to help the ECP raise the voter turnout from 55pc to 70pc and to reduce the gender gap.

The activities undertaken by the working group include: promotion of voter education through various means; organisation of training sessions for media persons; research on electoral practices, polling trends, etc; and focus on women voters and disabled/ marginalised/ vulnerable groups.

Obviously, on the one hand the working group intends to cover almost the whole range of matters related to elections, which means the emphasis on women’s concerns will be diluted, and on the other hand it seems to be skirting the main hurdles to women’s due participation in elections.

The project lumps together two target groups — women and the people living with disabilities (PLWD), and the problems this conceptual flaw will create have already been pointed out. A large number of people with disabilities cannot exercise their right to vote or otherwise take part in the electoral process and everything possible should be done to help them. We will take up this matter on another occasion. Meanwhile, the ECP working group may take a look at Zahid Abdullah’s paper on the subject including his admirable study, Disabled by Society and the recommendations of the national convention organised by the International Federation for Electoral Systems in Islamabad in September 2014, which was perhaps the largest ever gathering of PLWD in the country.

A woman is needed in the policymaking echelon of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

The plea that matters related to women’s voting and those concerning the people with disabilities should be treated as separate projects or separate parts of a single project merits proper discussion. The UNDP, that is providing funds, should not be averse to making the project more sharply focused. If nothing else, the project can be split into two parts, one part for women’s concerns and the other for PLWD.

The issue of enabling the women of Pakistan to fully participate in the electoral process has frequently been discussed in the context of a wider reform of the system. Unfortunately, the parliamentary committee charged with the task of developing a comprehensive electoral reform package has taken much too long to deliver. It has caused considerable confusion by getting the 22nd Amendment, to change the eligibility criteria for the chief election commissioner and the ECP members, passed by the National Assembly.

That these offices need not be filled exclusively by members of the superior judiciary, serving or retired, had no doubt been demanded by civil society but this was not the central issue in the debate. The government’s desire to have the 22nd Amendment passed before the term of the present ECP members expires is understandable but there was no need to hold back on what else there is in the reform package. The mist can easily be cleared by generating a public debate on all the reform proposals finalised by the committee.

Civil society has been vigorously arguing for the inclusion of at least one woman in the ECP so as to give the commission the benefit of women’s perspective on electoral issues. This need is not met by appointing a woman as an additional director general for gender affairs. A woman is needed in the policymaking echelon of the ECP.

The most critical issue faced by women is that they are prevented from voting under unlawful compacts among the political parties taking part in an election. Many years have passed since the judiciary held this practice to be illegal; although Sections 171-C and 171-J of the Penal Code are quite clear, the matter is still hanging fire. The ECP nullified a by-election in Dir on the grounds that women had been barred from voting. The decision was overturned by the Peshawar High Court and now the matter has been raised in the Supreme Court. One should like to know what the parliamentary committee has proposed to put an end to the most vile practice of preventing women from exercising their right to franchise.

The ECP has consistently been urged to prepare a separate record of women’s voting in all constituencies. It had promised to do so by 2013 and it must redeem its pledge before the next general election that is due not later than 2018. This data will play a crucial part in implementing the proposal to countermand election in any constituency if ballots cast by women are less than 20pc of their number on the rolls. The reform-makers may consider raising the figure to 30pc or even higher.

A key issue in the debate on the subject under discussion is the lack of attention to defend the rights of non-Muslim women. Apart from a fully fledged campaign to ensure that these women get their CNICs issued and that these cards are not appropriated by waderas and other professional contestants, there is need to remove the obstacles they face while presenting themselves as candidates for election. If fatwas are issued to warn Muslim voters against voting for a non-Muslim man, similar treatment is likely to be meted out to non-Muslim women candidates. That these edicts have been criminalised under the Penal Code has been ignored for decades. Should we hope that the ECP and the parliamentary committee have found a way to prevent the abuse of religion in electoral matters?

That, indeed, is the most critical issue that affects not only the rights of women but the fairness of the entire election system.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2016