Across the border in India, a transformation took place on the political landscape in December last year. A young girl died after she was brutally raped and following many violent protests, it now appears that gender violence and women’s rights in that country have become a hot political issue which any aspiring politician would need to take a strong stance on.

On this side of the border, in Pakistan, election campaigning has been in full swing. Across party lines, one hears rhetoric on corruption, load-shedding and terrorism. But women’s rights? That’s tucked away somewhere half-way down party manifestos.

When Mukhtaran Mai was gang raped over a decade ago, the case made headlines in Pakistan. But it is 2013 now, and with elections around the corner, gender-specific issues – be it sexual harassment, domestic violence, freedom to work or other issues – are no closer to being on the radar of election hopefuls.

So why is it that if for no one else, female voters in Pakistan seem uninterested in taking women’s rights into account when it comes to their voting preferences?

VIDEO: What women voters want

Politicians complicit in perpetuating patriarchy

“Women follow in the footsteps of a man when they are giving their vote. It’s not a woman’s choice,” Mai tells Now an activist, Mai explains that her workers have tried to go out and spread voter awareness amongst females in Punjab’s rural areas, only to be met by abuses from the men who said the activists were “spoiling” the women.

Dr Ali Cheema heads the Centre of Economic Research in Pakistan (Cerp), a research initiative which has carried out extensive work on collecting and analysing election-related data. Cheema, who is also an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums), concurs with the claim that a woman’s vote in Pakistan is likely to be exactly the same as her father’s, husband’s, or brother’s.

“(Political parties) don’t think of women, very frankly. And it’s not easy to, because the patriarchal system here is so strong – women who go out and vote, don’t vote differently.”

Just as significant as this voting pattern is the fact that political parties are complicit in perpetuating this exclusionary mode of electoral politics. Dr Cheema adds, “I saw Imran Khan on television the other day, declaring in a rally that he would educate the girls. But there wasn’t a woman to be seen in the crowd.” This points to the idea that political parties continue to work within existing systems of gender structures, making little or no attempt to change these. Even more significantly, in many areas, political parties come into agreements with local tribes or biradris to ensure that no woman actually makes it to a polling station – most likely because they don’t want to anger the male voter groups and potentially lose that vote bank.

Tahir Mehdi, the man behind Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focusing on policy and governance, agrees. Mehdi, who is currently travelling through rural Punjab to examine electoral patterns in different constituencies, says: “The whole family votes one way, and the political process just reinforces the status quo. This is the height of gender discrimination. All the candidates make a deal in advance. It also depends on the polling station’s area whose elders nobody wants to overrule.”

Women’s voting patterns, however, are not only related to systems of patriarchy. Anees Haroon, the Sindh caretaker minister for Human Rights and Women Development, says: “People are still caught up in their feudal, tribal or biradri affiliations; the majority of people don’t vote on issues. They vote for a candidate who belongs to their ethnic community.”

Haroon, who is also the former chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), adds that “political parties come out too late with their manifestos. They don’t touch on issues like family planning. They work on the basis of rhetoric.”

Mukhtaran Mai. — File Photo

What are political parties losing out on?

Make no mistake, the untapped vote bank lying out there – of registered female voters who don’t vote – has the potential to transform electoral politics, says Dr Cheema.

“Historically, once women get enfranchised, certain parties get a differential benefit… if you are able to get at women’s (voter) preferences, you can get more women to vote for you,” he explains. Dr Cheema adds that in the US, for example, by focusing on the issue of abortion, US President Barack Obama won the vote of the overwhelming majority of white women.

Most interestingly, while the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) has been unable to gather male and female voter turnout data from any previous election, Cerp used its own methodology to determine estimates – in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for example, only an estimated 15 per cent of registered female voters actually turned up to vote. The other 85 per cent could have actually considerably influenced election results.

The best example of this is potential voter turnout in Punjab. Estimates show that by tapping into the female vote bank, if even a five per cent swing takes place against any of the incumbent parties in Punjab – it would result in a 30 per cent change in seat representations.

In short, newer parties looking for potential voters – like the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) – or any parties looking to expand its vote bank would do well to look into a neglected voter group for improved chances of its own electoral victory.

Moreover, according to Fafen, difference between registered male and female voters is 10 million. If this gap is bridged even partially, millions of more women could become registered voters and be able to sway results in a number of constituencies.

Anis Haroon. — File Photo

What steps have been taken so far?

Much needs to be done but women have started taking strides in the right direction, argues Khawar Mumtaz, the current head of the National Commission on the Status of Women. Mumtaz, who is also one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum, feels that female political participation is increasing.

“These are not black or white situations,” says Mumtaz. “There are 49 women standing for elections on party tickets for general seats [as opposed to only on seats reserved for women] and another 75 standing independently…we did see female political workers at the grassroots level interacting with and talking to other females [for political inclusion.] This was during the local government system. Currently, there is no such system.”

Mehdi disagrees, and says that female grassroots campaigning is at a bare minimum. But he says that as far as voting is concerned, small, punctuated changes have taken place. “We put on a play in Sahiwal to spread awareness over the importance of women voters. This was in an area where women have never voted.”

According to Mehdi, Punjab Lok Sujag then reached an agreement with the local elders in that area, at least verbally, that women will be allowed to vote come May 11.

He explains that political parties in Pakistan work in a top-down manner – so unless there is pressure from either within the party ranks, or external pressure, such as from the media, ‘what women want’ is unlikely to make it either to the election or to the legislative agenda of different parties.

Caretaker minister Haroon adds that “according to statistics, female lawmakers, constituting only 20 per cent of the 2008-2013 National Assembly members, performed better than the men. Most of the time, quorum (minimum attendance for the assembly) was only met because women legislators were present.”

Long road ahead

Mai, for one, believes little, if any, progress has taken place. “What progress has taken place for women in these five years?” she asks. “No laws are being implemented,” she points out, referring to pro-women legislation passed in the previous government’s tenure on harassment and acid crimes.

“The ones who are sitting in Parliament have been accused of sex crimes themselves. In India, at least women have certain rights, certain entitlements. Here, no one ever comes and approaches female voters,” she says.

Mai is no less critical of female politicians. “Women legislators have only looked to save themselves and their seats. Raise your voice for women, implement these laws…women need more rights before they can come out and vote,” she urges.

Mai points out that in the current status quo, if a woman was to go out and give her vote to whomsoever she pleased, it was unlikely that she could return to her house. This, she said, was at least true for her home district of Muzaffargarh.

Both Mumtaz and Haroon acknowledge that there has been a time lag in the implementation of laws that could empower women and in turn increase their political participation – but point out that such trickle-down effects always take time.

Women voters in the tribal areas of Pakistan. — File Photo

“Pakistan’s history of democracy is chequered. People haven’t really understood the dynamics of electoral politics,” says Haroon. “Legislation takes time to trickle down.”

Mumtaz adds, saying “mechanisms are needed for implementation. There needs to be awareness that such laws have even been passed. Many are not interested in passing this information down to the grassroots level.” She also points out the logistical difficulties created for potential female voters. Many women, especially older ones, can’t vote because they don’t have CNICs, which they can’t get without a birth certificate or a nikahnama (marriage certificate), which they might not be in possession of.

On top of all that, Haroon points out, is the problem of general low voter turnout, regardless of whether it’s men or women. “With an overall low turnout, how do you expect women to be participatory? This time, considering the violence in all the provinces except Punjab, I don’t even know what is going to happen. There isn’t a level-playing field so even many men may find it very difficult to vote.”

The general consensus amongst the activists and academics, however, is encapsulated in the words of the provincial caretaker minister: “Everything can’t be left to the NGOs. It is the job of the political parties. Whether it’s Nawaz or Imran or anyone, I haven’t heard a single word about how a woman’s vote is necessary. There must be encouragement from the state as well.”



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