In the General elections in May that saw an unprecedented voter turnout of 55 per cent, many women voted for the first time, overcoming threats of violence, prompting senior journalist Dr. Shahid Masood to say that the rights of women to vote is not a given in Pakistan.
The elections were keenly monitored by the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and Gender Concerns International (GCI) through the gender lens. A report released earlier this week by GCI and Aurat Foundation highlighted several concerns of women voters, especially in remote and tribal areas.
Sabra Bano of GCI said that even after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) ordering re-polling in two stations — on complaints that women were prevented from voting — no one came out to vote. It was important to document the challenges and difficulties of women voters with a view to reform, she said.
In the 2008 general elections, 564 women’s polling stations — most of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) — recorded zero turnout. In 2013, out of the 37.6 million citizens registered to vote, women constituted 43.6 per cent; as compared to 48.6 million men, the report said. U.N. Women put the total women turnout at 15 million, making it 40 per cent of all votes.
There were many voter education programmes targeted at women. Despite pre-election threats, women came out to vote accompanied by their families, neighbours or friends, the report said.
Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of the NCSW, said in some places, women did not maintain secrecy of the ballot and could be seen voting together; she also stressed the need for confidentiality. Ms. Mumtaz stressed that despite all the chaos, there was a need to acknowledge the unprecedented turnout of women, many of them first time voters. For example, Khair Muhammad Samejo village in the Jacobabad area of Sindh — having recorded zero turnout of women in 2008 — had a 61 per cent turnout this time.
She said greater attention needed to be paid to the space allocated for booths — in some places small crowded classrooms with no provision for water or sanitation acted as booths. Poor roads to polling booths added to the problem.
The report listed other common problems such as understaffing of booths and late arrival of officials. In many rural polling stations, women required assistance to vote; some having to leave without voting because they couldn’t understand the procedure. In Sargodha, Punjab, women voted for the first time in the history in union councils Liliani and Moazamabad.
It was disappointing, the report said, to find that out of the 6819 candidates nominated by political parties, only 3.5 per cent were women.
The GCI report recommended that elections in constituencies where women were barred from voting must be declared null and void and re-polling ordered in places where the women’s turnout was less than ten per cent.