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A sorry day for women voters

March 08, 2012


The Election Commission has not issued the gender breakup of the draft electoral rolls. They haven’t made public the information that how many of the voters that they have recently counted are women and how many are men. It’s not that they can’t tell a woman from a man, I am sure they can, it’s probably because they are too shy with all things women. That’s anyways our first line of response to gender issues – to look the other way; try to brush things under the rug and cover up.

The Commission can publish these statistics in no time and that too without any effort as these already lie with them. All of the many types of voter registration forms include a column about gender that no one can leave unfilled. The Commission needs these numbers for making the mandatory separate polling station arrangements for women voters. But it has always jealously guarded this information and if it had to divulge it would only partly lift the veil and release province wise figures and not the constituency level break-up. It did accept this demand of many a women rights organisations finally in 2008, only to by pass it again while releasing the draft electoral rolls in 2012.

These numbers can be very helpful. They can tell us how many of the women are disenfranchised in the country and where. We can then zoom in on the exact pockets where the phenomenon is rampant and more pervasive than others. An eligible yet unregistered voter is latent political capital that is bound to be cashed when it’s crunch. Political parties or contestants of a constituency may cartelise to make polling stations no-go-areas for women, as they do in parts of Pakhtunkhwa, but descent in politics is always at hand. The dam may be too huge but all that is needed to destroy it is a small crack. The exact number of women voters in a constituency can help make that vital difference.

The Commission can also be instrumental in helping us understand voting trends among women. There are three types of polling stations in our country; the men only, the women only and the combined ones. In the latter the polling booths (and ballot boxes) for men and women are separate but at the time of counting votes no separate tally is maintained for each box. A minor change in vote counting rules (and the vote tally form) can help us have a separate turnout and voting pattern for women. It’s very simple to do and it won’t tax any of the financial or human resources already employed. Our neighbor, India, does this simple chore regularly.

But our commission would not bother about these rather innocent demands. Why? May be they are embarrassed that they count far too few women than men. The 1998 population census counted 93 women for every 100 men of age 18 and above. The figure for female registered voters, however has hovered around 85 women per 100 men since 1970. Has it dropped further to new lows in the current voter registration campaign?

It might actually have, and reasons for the decline can be worked out but what I can’t comprehend is the logic behind the Commission’s decision to withhold, if not hide, this information. We have fewer women than men and that’s not a fault of the Population Census Organisation, so if we have fewer women voters than men that shouldn’t be blamed on the Election Commission.

Political parties, weak democratic institutions, traditions and customs, economic deprivation and a lot more can be blamed for disenfranchising and depoliticising women folk and every stakeholder can easily pass on the blame to some other player utilising a little bit of guile and lots of rhetoric. So why worry, Election Commission?

A bigger than usual gender gap in voters should actually motivate political parties and NGOs to get more and more women registered before elections that is at least months away. The gender gap in voters can’t be wished away neither can a hiding act be of help; the Commission needs to realise this and go public with women voter facts.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.