The issue of political mainstreaming of women is in the limelight these days as polling for the 2018 general elections is scheduled for July 25. The general elections have become a test case for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to implement the Elections Act, 2017, in which different provisions have been incorporated for encouraging participation of women in the polls as voters as well as candidates.

The disenfranchisement of women is a recurring phenomenon in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa especially in different areas of Upper and Lower Dir districts. From time-to-time this issue continued to surface in general elections and by-elections.

For the same reasons and after campaigning by civil society groups, certain provisions have been included in the Elections Act, 2017, to check these practices. Previously, in the Representation of Peoples Act, 1976, no specific provision was available to exclusively deal with the issue of barring women from casting votes.

Through the Elections Act 2017, a consolidated law dealing with election matters was introduced and the Representation of Peoples Act and seven other election related laws were repealed.

Section 9 is included in the Elections Act empowering the ECP to declare an election void on the ground of disenfranchisement of women.

Section 9 (1) states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, if, from facts apparent on the face of the record and after such enquiry as it may deem necessary, the Commission is satisfied that by reason of grave illegalities or such violations of the provisions of this Act or the Rules as have materially affected the result of the poll at one or more polling stations or in the whole constituency including implementation of an agreement restraining women from casting their votes, it shall make a declaration accordingly and call upon the voters in the concerned polling station or stations or in the whole constituency as the case may be, to recast their votes in the manner provided for by-elections.”

Explanation to the said section provides that if turnout of women voters is less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the ECP may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency as void.

Under sub-section 5 of the said section, any person aggrieved by a declaration of the ECP may prefer an appeal to the Supreme Court within 30 days of the said declaration. Before enactment of Elections Act, a person aggrieved with order of the ECP used to move the high court.

Apart from this provision, Section 170 of the Act provides that a person is guilty of exercising undue influence if he prevents any women from contesting an election or exercising her right to vote. Under section 167 of the Act, it amounts to corrupt practice if a person exercises undue influence. The crime is punishable up to three years imprisonment, or with fine of Rs100,000, or both.

Before these provisions, the ECP was facing handicap in declaring an election void on ground of women disenfranchisement. One of the most publicised cases was when the ECP had declared a by-election held in PK-75, Lower Dir, as void on June 2, 2015, as not a single female had cast her vote. However, the said judgment of the ECP was set aside by the Peshawar High Court on March 10, 2016, and the issue has now been pending before the Supreme Court.

Moreover, to encourage women to contest on general seats, section 206 was incorporated in the Act making it binding on a political party to award five per cent seats to women in the general category.

Section 206 of the Act states: “A political party shall make the selection of candidates for elective offices, including membership of the Majlis-i-Shoora (Parliament) and Provincial assemblies, through a transparent and democratic procedure and while making the selection of candidates on general seats shall ensure at least five per cent representation of women candidates.”

Section 215 of the Act provides that a political party will be eligible to obtain an election symbol for contesting elections for the parliament, provincial assemblies and local government on submission of certificates related to different issues, including giving five per cent representation to women for general seats.

Before enactment of this provision, experts had feared that political parties would not award party tickets to women in constituencies, which they consider as their strongholds. Those apprehensions proved to be true as political parties have mostly awarded tickets to women in constituencies which are not considered their strongholds in KP.

Another issue of concern was the growing disparity between male and female voters. Section 47 of the Act has made it binding on the ECP that it shall annually publish disaggregated data of registered men and women voters in each National Assembly and Provincial assembly constituency.

The law provides that where the variation in the disaggregated data is more than 10 per cent in a constituency, the ECP shall take special measures to reduce such variation. According to data of ECP, there are total 105.95 million registered voters of which 59.22 million are male (55.89%) and 46.73 million (44.10 per cent) female voters in the country. There is a difference of around 12.49 million between the male and female registered voters.

In KP, of total 15.316 voters, 8.70 million (56.84%) are male voters and 6.61 million (43.15%) are female voters. By the end of 2017, the ECP had also launched special campaign in 79 districts across the country to address the disparity between male and female voters.

Legal experts believe that ECP and its monitoring teams have to play a vigilant role for implementation of these provisions of the Election Act, 2017, so as to ensure the political mainstreaming of women.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018

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