AT last, it seems the wheels of change are turning in some of the most regressive parts of this country, though not without some firm prodding from the Election Commission of Pakistan. On Tuesday, over 1,000 women in Lower Dir exercised their right to vote, a sign that their disenfranchisement in the area may be coming to a long overdue end. The women cast their votes in a by-election to select candidates for 21 seats of local government councils; the earlier election had been cancelled by the ECP because no women had turned up to vote on that occasion. This time around, a substantial percentage of registered women voters exercised their right of franchise, even though the numbers varied widely from one polling station to another. Nevertheless, it is a beginning and that in itself is something to welcome.
Lower Dir is among those areas where the pretext of tradition has repeatedly, and disingenuously, been used to disenfranchise women. Earlier, local chapters of political parties would openly strike agreements to disallow women from choosing their representatives — anathema to those who consider the public space, and the decisions made in it, as belonging to men alone. When rights activists and the ECP began to take notice, the agreements became more tacit, and were enforced subtly through social pressure. The recently enacted Elections Act, 2017 has given more teeth to the legal provisions against women’s disenfranchisement, and the recent by-poll proves that if there is sufficient political will, regressive traditions can be whittled away. Credit goes to the ECP — and the lawmakers that have strengthened its hand — for taking steps to signal to political parties that business as usual will no longer be tolerated. To further cement the participation of women in the electoral process, the 12pc gender disparity among male and female voters countrywide must be urgently addressed. It would also be a productive exercise to make gender-disaggregation of votes a regular practice so as to help discern voting patterns among women.
Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2018