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Where are the women voters?


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AS we get closer to 2018 when the current national and provincial assemblies complete their five-year term, several election-related issues are attracting the attention of decision-makers and other stakeholders. As far as women voters are concerned, two issues stand out both in terms of their importance and urgency.

First is the registration of women voters. According to the last census held in 1998, the total population of Pakistan was a little over 132 million. The female population constituted 48 per cent of the total population. The latest figures of registered voters released by the Election Commission of Pakistan last month, indicate that Pakistan has a total of around 97m registered voters of which women voters are around 42.42m which translates to a little less than 44pc of the total number of voters.

Using the 1998 census composition, there should have been 48pc women registered voters, which corresponds to 46.58m and which means that around 4.16m women have not been able to find their way to the voters list. Unfortunately, there has always been a gap between the number of women qualified to vote and the number of registered women voters.

In the controversial electoral rolls for the 2002 general election, women voters constituted 46.11pc of the total registered voters. This percentage went further down in the 2008 electoral rolls when registered women voters constituted about 44pc of the electoral rolls. The percentage of registered women voters improved to 46.62pc just before the 2013 general election. Sadly, the latest ECP figures indicate a significant dip in registered women voters to 43.73pc of the total registered voters.

The ECP must convene a roundtable conference to bring women into the electoral rolls.

Over a period of time and especially since the 2013 election, the registration of women voters should have improved but alarmingly this percentage has further gone down in the latest tally. The current percentage (43.73pc) of registered women voters compares very unfavourably with the percentage of registered women voters in India which is 47.78pc according to their 2016 electoral rolls.

Since the available time is short and the gender gap in registered votes — over four million — is significant, the ECP along with the political parties and civil society needs to take up the issue on an urgent basis.

Going by a report in this newspaper recently, it is encouraging that the ECP has already analysed the patterns of women voters’ registration in various parts of the country and is concentrating on areas from where a low figure for registration of women voters has been reported.

It is even more admirable that the ECP has analysed the gender gap in registered voters down to the level of census blocks which is the smallest unit of population used for the purpose of both the population census and the electoral rolls. It has also identified some 26,000 census blocks where women voters’ registration is below the 40pc mark. It will be in the fitness of things that the ECP convenes a roundtable conference of all stakeholders including the local government representatives, political parties, civil society organisations, academicians and media to discuss the issue and devise urgent steps to bring the missing women voters into the electoral rolls. We have less than a year because the electoral rolls will need to be frozen around the first quarter of 2018.

Registration is the first step before women can actually vote in the next election. Although the 2015 local government election indicated some encouraging trends in women voting, there are signs of the continuing illegal and deplorable practice of stopping or discouraging women voters from exercising their right to vote in some constituencies especially during elections for members of the national and provincial assemblies.

Some days ago, this paper carried a disturbing story that 17 National Assembly constituencies saw less than 5pc women voters actually casting their votes during the last general election in 2013. Three of these constituencies lie in Fata where special circumstances including terrorist activities have disturbed the area over the past many years. Some other constituencies had experienced an overall low voter turnout, eg NA-152, where male voter turnout was a mere 2.13pc.

However, some of these constituencies have repeatedly shown a tendency of women being barred from voting and therefore it is important to focus on them. Two National Assembly constituencies in Upper and Lower Dir fall under this category. The ECP can hold special consultations with the political parties and the current elected representatives of these constituencies to persuade them to cooperate with the ECP in ensuring unhindered voting by women voters.

Our natural reaction to any such violation is to come up with a new law instead of going for a more effective but probably more challenging route of enforcing the existing laws. There already exists a law (Representation of the People Act, 1976; Section 81 ‘Undue Influence’) which makes it an offence to “compel any person to vote or refrain from voting” but despite overwhelming evidence, such as the written and widely publicised agreements of local political leaders on legal stamped papers, that women are not allowed to vote, the ECP or the local administration has hardly taken action against these political leaders.

Instead, the ECP is contemplating a law which will automatically make the election void in a constituency where the turnout of women voters is less than a certain threshold, say 10pc.

Apparently, this proposed law may not only prove ineffective, it could also be unfair. After all, there are several constituencies where overall voter turnout is less than 10pc. In fact, a number of National Assembly constituencies are identified in the same report carried by this newspaper where the male voter turnout is less than female voter turn-out. It will be far more effective if the ECP rigorously applies the existing laws and makes an example out of those who stop others from voting.

The writer is president of Pildat — a public policy think tank of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2017

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

UKumar Jan 10, 2017 02:12am

Writer is addressing an important issue of women participation in democratic process. For any country to proper and be caring, half the elected offices should be filled with women. There are steps, registration, actual voting and candidates. The proactive efforts be made to achieve well deserved democratic rights of women. More women in government, better will be governance.

pk Jan 10, 2017 08:34am

17 constituencies has less than 5 percent voting. And some bar Women from voting . What a shame?

wellwisher Jan 10, 2017 08:46am

my suggestions, both for India and Pakistan are 1. term should be reduced from 5 to 4 years,2. 30 % seats must be reserved for women, 3. voters must be encouraged to vote, 4. if less than 20% woman vote, reelection should be called.

AHA Jan 10, 2017 08:51am

How do we expect voter registration to be accurate when we can't even count our people once in 10 year.....

Alba Jan 10, 2017 09:31am

In the first half of the 20th century African Americans were disenfranchised as voters in the Southern States because they had to "qualify' to vote.

Shalone Jan 10, 2017 10:29am

It is very important that women vote as much as men. Since many women have no say in the family decisions, men do not report women which reduces the percentages of registered voters. That must change. But just as Im,portant is the fact that the percentage of porfolios for women is far less that those of men in cabinet and other decision making positions. That is unfair and must change. Ideally, we should opnly vote for political parties which allot fair amount of top jobs to women.

Gp65 Jan 10, 2017 11:30am

A broader question is why does a country of 200 million have only 97 million registered voters. India with a similar demographic profile had 850 million registered voters for a population of 1.25 billion. If Pakistan had a similar ratio of registered voters it should have around 125 million registered voters.

Muhammad zahid Jan 10, 2017 02:45pm

Very polite and positive language and a very good idea. Excellent writings

SAB Jan 10, 2017 03:29pm

In every constituency of Pakistan, women voters are less than male voters. There is no constituency in Pakistan where the number of women voters is less than 10000 than men voters. So the problem is not limited to constituencies of FATA or KP, it is a countrywide problem. On average there are 40000 less women voters in every constituency in Pakistan, according to the voters list finalized at the time of 2013 general elections.

UKumar Jan 10, 2017 05:16pm

@Gp65 Excellent point

ANSARI Jan 10, 2017 11:16pm

Potato-Potahto! We're still getting the same old N-League or the PPP because of iliterate nation. We need education to bring progress and ept leaders, not votes or electoral rolls.

illawarrior Jan 11, 2017 06:02am

Apart from the issue at hand, of female voting, am I the only one alarmed that only 48% of the population is female? Statistically, this means 4% (over half a million) of the male population will not have a wife - even more, if some men have multiple wives.

ayesha Jan 11, 2017 10:42pm

what are the actual reasons behind low percentage of women voters?

ayesha mazhar Jan 11, 2017 10:47pm

what are the actual reasons behind the low women voters in pakistan?

ayesha mazhar Jan 11, 2017 10:55pm

what are the reasons for low women voters?