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Hurdles for women’s participation in politics

By: Syed Mohammad Ali

Accusations of rigging continue to be a source of worry for the current government, despite it having been in power for a year. While the last election process may have unfairly denied a few prominent politicians of the chance to secure power, there is a much larger problem concerning electoral processes which does not get sufficient attention in countries like our own, which has to do with the perpetual marginalisation of women from the political arena.

Given the fact that women comprise roughly half the population of the country, they remain severely under-represented as voters, political leaders and elected officials. A genuinely participatory democracy cannot function if half the citizens of a state remain under-represented in the political arena. Yet women continue to be excluded from the political realm, often by threat of force.

As with other forms of violence against women, violence against women in the political arena is also mostly perpetrated by males (and even other women), as the means to assert power and to reinforce hierarchical structures based on exploitation of marginalised groups, including women.

A recently launched study conducted by the Centre for Social Research and United Nations Women convincingly illustrates how political violence has remained underpinned by patriarchal norms within Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani societies over this past decade.

Concerning Pakistan, in particular, this study points out how our political system is still highly fragmented and volatile. Besides noting high profile assassinations of our only female prime minister and Punjab’s minister for social welfare in 2007, it notes other coercive barriers which undermine political participation of women, including not only religious militancy but widespread gender discrimination at vital stages of political processes. For example, it points out how political parties themselves remain biased against women, often excluding them from decision-making positions.

While there was an impressive voter turnout for women in the last general elections (40 per cent of all votes cast), the percentage of women who won the elections fell drastically from over 12 per cent in 2008 to under four per cent in 2013.

Women politicians continue being sidelined even if they manage to achieve political power, having trouble, for example, in accessing funds for their constituencies. They are often subjected to derogatory remarks and malicious smear campaigns, and largely left to fend for themselves, without adequate backing from their political parties when they are subjected to such gender-specific attacks.

A small survey was conducted under the above-mentioned study amongst election commission officials, the police, contestants and ordinary families in both urban and rural areas, which provides interesting results. A majority of Pakistani respondents (55 per cent) lack confidence in women’s education and political skills, and wanted a man (husband or father) to be appointed as a proxy in their place, even if they had managed to win the elections. Around 78 per cent of surveyed Pakistanis also wanted women to fulfil their domestic responsibilities prior to undertaking any sort of political responsibility.

Given the impediments they face, it is not surprising why hereditary politics remains the main driving force for women’s involvement in the political arena today. To make the act of elections more participatory and representative in countries like our own, election commissions, political parties and civil society organisations must join hands to help institutionalise women’s involvement in politics.

Express Tribune