By AHMED BILAL MEHBOOB
AS we get closer to 2018 when the current national and provincial assemblies complete their five-year term, several election-related issues are attracting the attention of decision-makers and other stakeholders. As far as women voters are concerned, two issues stand out both in terms of their importance and urgency.
First is the registration of women voters. According to the last census held in 1998, the total population of Pakistan was a little over 132 million. The female population constituted 48 per cent of the total population. The latest figures of registered voters released by the Election Commission of Pakistan last month, indicate that Pakistan has a total of around 97m registered voters of which women voters are around 42.42m which translates to a little less than 44pc of the total number of voters.
Using the 1998 census composition, there should have been 48pc women registered voters, which corresponds to 46.58m and which means that around 4.16m women have not been able to find their way to the voters list. Unfortunately, there has always been a gap between the number of women qualified to vote and the number of registered women voters.
In the controversial electoral rolls for the 2002 general election, women voters constituted 46.11pc of the total registered voters. This percentage went further down in the 2008 electoral rolls when registered women voters constituted about 44pc of the electoral rolls. The percentage of registered women voters improved to 46.62pc just before the 2013 general election. Sadly, the latest ECP figures indicate a significant dip in registered women voters to 43.73pc of the total registered voters.
Over a period of time and especially since the 2013 election, the registration of women voters should have improved but alarmingly this percentage has further gone down in the latest tally. The current percentage (43.73pc) of registered women voters compares very unfavourably with the percentage of registered women voters in India which is 47.78pc according to their 2016 electoral rolls.
Since the available time is short and the gender gap in registered votes — over four million — is significant, the ECP along with the political parties and civil society needs to take up the issue on an urgent basis.
Going by a report in this newspaper recently, it is encouraging that the ECP has already analysed the patterns of women voters’ registration in various parts of the country and is concentrating on areas from where a low figure for registration of women voters has been reported.
It is even more admirable that the ECP has analysed the gender gap in registered voters down to the level of census blocks which is the smallest unit of population used for the purpose of both the population census and the electoral rolls. It has also identified some 26,000 census blocks where women voters’ registration is below the 40pc mark. It will be in the fitness of things that the ECP convenes a roundtable conference of all stakeholders including the local government representatives, political parties, civil society organisations, academicians and media to discuss the issue and devise urgent steps to bring the missing women voters into the electoral rolls. We have less than a year because the electoral rolls will need to be frozen around the first quarter of 2018.
Registration is the first step before women can actually vote in the next election. Although the 2015 local government election indicated some encouraging trends in women voting, there are signs of the continuing illegal and deplorable practice of stopping or discouraging women voters from exercising their right to vote in some constituencies especially during elections for members of the national and provincial assemblies.
Some days ago, this paper carried a disturbing story that 17 National Assembly constituencies saw less than 5pc women voters actually casting their votes during the last general election in 2013. Three of these constituencies lie in Fata where special circumstances including terrorist activities have disturbed the area over the past many years. Some other constituencies had experienced an overall low voter turnout, eg NA-152, where male voter turnout was a mere 2.13pc.
However, some of these constituencies have repeatedly shown a tendency of women being barred from voting and therefore it is important to focus on them. Two National Assembly constituencies in Upper and Lower Dir fall under this category. The ECP can hold special consultations with the political parties and the current elected representatives of these constituencies to persuade them to cooperate with the ECP in ensuring unhindered voting by women voters.
Our natural reaction to any such violation is to come up with a new law instead of going for a more effective but probably more challenging route of enforcing the existing laws. There already exists a law (Representation of the People Act, 1976; Section 81 ‘Undue Influence’) which makes it an offence to “compel any person to vote or refrain from voting” but despite overwhelming evidence, such as the written and widely publicised agreements of local political leaders on legal stamped papers, that women are not allowed to vote, the ECP or the local administration has hardly taken action against these political leaders.
Instead, the ECP is contemplating a law which will automatically make the election void in a constituency where the turnout of women voters is less than a certain threshold, say 10pc.
Apparently, this proposed law may not only prove ineffective, it could also be unfair. After all, there are several constituencies where overall voter turnout is less than 10pc. In fact, a number of National Assembly constituencies are identified in the same report carried by this newspaper where the male voter turnout is less than female voter turn-out. It will be far more effective if the ECP rigorously applies the existing laws and makes an example out of those who stop others from voting.