The 2013 general elections saw a slight closing of the electoral gender map. The female voter turnout was the highest ever at 40 percent of all votes cast while there were 455 women candidates for general seats at the national and provincial levels – a sharp increase from the 280 in 2008. But even that only amounted to about three percent of total candidates. On top of that, in at least 15 polling areas in remote parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, women were prevented from voting all together. This has been a routine feature of elections, where the political parties – whose candidates are often from the same tribe or even the same family – come to an informal agreement to keep out women voters. Even though this is illegal under the law, the collusion between political parties means no one is willing to come forward and complain. The government is now trying to change that with its latest set of electoral reforms. The Draft Election Bill 2017, presented to the National Assembly recently, will give the Election Commission of Pakistan the power to order re-polling at polling stations or even entire constituencies if less than 10 percent of registered women voters cast their ballot.
The measure is part of a reforms package that includes other important amendments such as allowing overseas Pakistanis to vote at embassies and consulates. As such, it is likely to pass early next year and may even be incorporated into the 27th Amendment to the constitution. But the government should not feel that its work is done. There is still much more work needed if women are given an equal opportunity to vote. In the 2013 elections, women made up just 43.6 percent of registered voters despite being half the population – a registration gender gap of 11 million. This is partly because fewer women possess ID cards and so the government needs to ensure all women are registered with Nadra. Every constituency that has a history of suppressing the female vote should have separate polling stations for women since women there are often kept out of combined polling stations. Women often complain about harassment while trying to vote and so security and training of poll workers will be needed. Above all, to change the electoral culture requires having more women in the decision-making structures in political parties.