Footprints: No CNIC? No vote

Updated March 23, 2018

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KHAYAL Marjana showing her CNIC token.—Photo by writer
KHAYAL Marjana showing her CNIC token.—Photo by writer

KHAYAL Marjana, 72, lives in a mud house on a hill about ten kilometres from the centre of Kalabagh in Mianwali district. This year is the first time that she has applied for a computerised national identity card (CNIC). It is necessary if she is to vote in the upcoming general elections.

“Since it is now mandatory for a blood relative to authorise kith and kin, I am worried that if I die, my children will have no means to get CNICs,” says the now widowed Marjana, adding that having a CNIC might enable her to get stipend from the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). “I haven’t decided about the candidate, but if I won’t vote, how will I be able ask [the elected representatives] for development?”

There is no gas or water connection in their area and the family uses donkeys to fetch water from a nearby community tank erected by the government.

On a Thursday afternoon this month, a mobile registration van of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) is parked in one corner of the residence of the Nawabs of Kalabagh in Mianwali. It is taking applications from female applicants who cannot travel to far-flung Nadra centres.

Shaheen, 25, is one such applicant, and plans to vote for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) candidate. A resident of Mianwali, she is well aware of what a woman’s vote can achieve. “If the women of our area don’t vote, the [winning] candidates will ultimately have lesser incentive in carrying out development works,” she says, adding that she will vote as she likes even if the males of the family decide otherwise.

An overwhelming number of women, however, might not be able to vote because they do not have CNICs. A December 2017 fact-sheet published by the National Commission on the Status of Women, in association with a programme called Tabeer-Consolidating Democracy in Pakistan, estimates that over 10 million adult women in Pakistan are missing from the electoral rolls because they do not have a CNIC.

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The Elections Act, 2017, says that a person shall be entitled to be enrolled as a voter if he or she “possesses a National Identity Card issued by the National Database and Registration Authority at any time till the last day fixed for inviting claims, objections and applications for preparation, revision or correction of electoral rolls”.

This last day is fast-approaching in April. If these women fail to register themselves with Nadra soon, they will not be able to vote in the upcoming elections. The ECP earlier used to prepare electoral rolls by undertaking a door-to-door exercise in a census-like manner, but the rolls were tied to Nadra’s database in 2006, and ultimately in 2011, producing a CNIC at the time of voting was made compulsory through an amendment to the Electoral Rolls Act, 1974.

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Official statistics point out that the gap between male and female voters has increased over time from 10.97 million in March 2013 to 12.17 million in the rolls of September 2017. There is consensus amongst officials and civil society activists that although patriarchal norms repeatedly bar women from participating in the electoral process in some areas of the country, this single provision of excluding non-bearers of the CNIC will bar a large number of female voters.

Shehnaz says that although she will vote in the elections, the primary incentive for her to get a CNIC was so that she can receive a monthly stipend under the BISP. At 30, Shehnaz — single and orphaned — believes that having a CNIC will ease her financial difficulties.

Tahir Mehdi, a researcher on elections and governance associated with Tabeer, says that although the lack of an incentive in gaining a CNIC plays an important role in the accumulation of the gap between male and female voters in the electoral rolls, incentivising it is not a practical solution; ultimately, the ECP and Nadra will have to register female voters by themselves. To fulfil the huge gender gap in electoral rolls, the ECP along with Nadra and civil society organisations have launched an emergency campaign in 79 districts of the country. Mehdi, however, also outlines that the gap is so high that it is virtually impossible to bridge it until April when the electoral rolls are finalised for the 2018 elections.

Khalid Ismail, senior assistant election commissioner of Mianwali, says that his department is working in tandem with Nadra, religious scholars, community leaders and civil society activists. According to him, there will be some clarity on the number of women missing from the rolls, after the draft electoral rolls are compared with the census results. “We do not know the exact number yet,” he says. “However, I am confident that we will be able to bridge the gap because of our efforts.”

Mianwali District Commissioner Shozab Saeed echoes his views. “A coordinated effort by all stakeholders will help us reach our goal swiftly,” he says, adding that his office is providing all possible support to the ECP and Nadra to ensure that as many women as possible are registered as elections approach.

Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2018