For Western countries, democracy, in certain times and places, might be a selective slogan to achieve strategic ends such as ‘regime change’ in some parts of the world.
We in Pakistan, however, really know the worth of having democracy in the country. It is something countless political activists, workers, progressive intellectuals, journalists, and many others in our history have strived for.
Women who are almost half of Pakistan’s population have a complex relationship with democracy. We explore women’s political participation by referring to some literature (Cheema et al 2019, Jinnah Institute 2019, Liaqat et al 2018) in this article.
In terms of women’s political participation, there are some positive developments and systemic challenges that still need attention. Low women voter turnout is an issue. Even urban women like me sometimes do not vote despite the lack of any obstacles. At the national level, there is a gender gap in terms of women voters’ turnout. Yet, this gap decreased and women voter turnout was 45.7 percent in 2018, having increased from 37.32 percent in 2013. Similarly, women voted less than 5 percent in at least 17 constituencies in 2013.
In 2018, there were no constituencies where women voter turnout was less than 5 percent and it was less than 10 percent only in three constituencies. According to the Elections Act 2017, the results of those constituencies have to be declared null and void where women voter turnout is less than 10 percent.
In terms of challenges, there is still a gap between men and women’s voter registration (roughly 12.2 million) in the electoral rolls of the country. This means that 12.2 million less women are registered as voters compared to men. In December 2016, there were total 97 million registered voters: 54.6 million men (56 percent) and 42.4 percent women. In other words, there are only 78 women registered voters for every 100 men. For the 2018 elections, 3.8 million more women were registered as voters, yet women are still 44 percent of almost 106 million registered voters.
Getting a CNIC is often difficult for women belonging to remote areas. Women might not be in position to meet the detailed documentation requirements needed to register for a CNIC and it might be compounded due to restrictions on their mobility.
Going beyond women voter registration, there are also issues of women turnout at the elections. In 2018 elections, only 45.7 percent women voted in the national and provincial elections and voter turnout for men was higher at 55 percent. This calls for a deeper look into the constraints underlying women’s political participation.
The gender gap exists even in urban areas where the gender educational gap has significantly narrowed down. In 1990, the educational attainment gender gap amongst young adults in urban areas was 10 percent, considered to be large. However, over the next 20 years, this gender gap in education has almost closed down. Yet, it did not have the desired positive impact on women’s political participation, even in urban areas. Generally, research shows that with education, voter turnout increases. However, it has not significantly impacted women’s political participation in the urban areas in Pakistan, something that needs further exploration.
In terms of constraints on women’s political participation, literature identifies patriarchy, women’s lack of political information, and general lack of interest in the political processes as major reasons. Empirical research by Cheema and others shows that while all the three above-mentioned constraints are prevalent and play a role, it is largely women’s disillusionment with the political process that is the “most compelling explanation” behind the low participation of women in the voting process.
Political parties target significantly less women than men. This lack of inclusion of women in political canvassing results in a ‘gendered psyche’ that might contribute to making women “invisible and irrelevant” to the political process and elections. In other words, women are not perceived as a “political constituency” by political parties, which then leads to their disengagement from the electoral process.
Research has shown that women have different preferences from men in terms of public goods, services and policy. It is particularly significant in terms of the public services that have an impact on women’s lives inside their homes. In other words, women might have preferred if political parties contact teams engaged them on their preferences of provision of public services.
If political party workers and politicians had greater interaction with women on the basis of their needs, it could lead to greater women voter turnout. Political parties are run by male party workers who generally engage men during the elections campaign. It is this exclusion from political contact rather than domestic constraints that often leads to demotivating women voters.
Voters in general prize connections to politicians to achieve patronage based delivery of goods and services. In this backdrop, political parties need to develop contacts with women. Working both with women and men can lead to an increase in women voter turnout. Women might be even more amenable to participate in processes that call for “accountability bargain” of the political representatives.
Therefore, increasing direct contact with women and working on establishing a stronger accountability relationship with political parties might be an effective way to stimulate their interest in the electoral process. This process of accountability is geared towards the provision of public goods and services to constituents by also keeping in mind the different preferences that women have.