There is no denying this: women form over 50 percent of the total population of Pakistan but remain marginalised in the country’s politics. One of the main reasons is that in certain parts of the country – especially in the tribal areas, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan – candidates and political parties proactively enter into agreements restraining women of particular areas or polling stations from exercising their right to vote. The ban can extend from a few polling stations or villages to an entire constituency.
In certain cases, candidates from mainstream political parties, whose manifestos expressly guarantee women empowerment, have also been found imposing such bans, justifying them on the basis of culture barriers, religious restrictions and immobility issues for women travelling to distant polling stations. To block these and other hurdles in the way of women casting their vote, the Election Commission of Pakistan set about drafting a law seeking an amendment in the Representation of People Act, 1976, and calling for re-polling at any polling station where at least 10 percent of votes are not cast by women. The draft was sent to the law ministry for approval by parliament, which had to turn it into law within the next few months in order for it to be in use during the upcoming general election.
This was a welcome move and one that deserves nothing but applause. However, as is the lot of women in the country, our political parties have managed to undo the good done by the ECP and turned down the proposal. Unfortunate as it is, all hope is still not lost; the ECP has other mechanisms in place to secure women’s right to vote. For instance, from a legal standpoint, an accord between candidates that bars women from casting their votes amounts to a conspiracy to commit an illegal act under Section 171-J of the Pakistan Penal Code and a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act, 1976. Thus, even now, without this new law, the ECP has the power to cancel an election in a constituency where women are not allowed to vote, and must exercise this power when the elections roll in. In the final analysis, however, assuring women the right to vote is not the ECP’s job alone. The present government and all political parties need to start mass awareness programmes and workshops at the district, tehsil and village levels through local party chapters and supporting NGOs.
Additionally, political parties need to make the issue of women voters a part of their manifestos and punish candidates found trying to block women from casting their ballot. Finally, the media must also play its role in increasing awareness about the pressing issue of women disenfranchisement.