THE participation of women in the electoral exercise still lags behind that of the men. But the gap is shrinking, and that is a welcome development. As recently as July, the discrepancy in the enrolment of men and women had reached 12.72m in a total of 112.39m voters. The Election Commission of Pakistan had made it clear it intended to focus actively on narrowing this difference. Clearly, its efforts have borne fruit. Earlier this month, the data showed the gender gap has narrowed for the first time to 12.41m — in fact, of the 3.28m voters added to the electoral rolls between July and October, a majority were women. With the release of district-wise data by the ECP, a more complete picture has emerged. Only nine districts in the country account for a gap of over 3m between male and female voters — that is, around 25pc of the total difference. There are 16 districts where the gap between the two sets of voters is over 200,000. Of these, 14 are in Punjab, and one each is in Sindh and KP. In Lahore and Faisalabad districts, the gender gap is a whopping 1m.

Despite many elections having come and gone, the patriarchal mindset that persists in much of Pakistani society finds it difficult to come to terms with women having a voice in decision-making processes. Local chapters of political parties have often struck deals to keep female voters away from the hustings. When rights activists began to create a ruckus over this and the ECP took notice, the agreements became more tacit and employed social pressure to discourage women voters. Fortunately, the Election Act 2017 has given some teeth to legal provisions against female disenfranchisement, for instance making it mandatory to have at least 10pc of total votes in each constituency cast by women. The ECP cancelled a 2018 by-election in Lower Dir on account of zero women’s votes. When the election was held again, over 1,000 women exercised their right to vote — a small beginning, but a significant one. The political parties must also nominate more women candidates. In the 2018 elections, more women than ever before contested on general seats, but only because the law now requires that parties allocate at least 5pc tickets to women on general seats. No party did more than meet this minimum requirement. Higher visibility for women in the political arena is necessary to effect change.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2020

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