For the first time in more than 40 years, women turned out in significant numbers to vote in one of Pakistan’s districts.
The vote for local government in Upper Dir district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, held last week, was necessary because the previous election, held in 2017, was annulled by the Election Commission of Pakistan because no women had participated. The country’s election law requires at least 10 percent of voters to be women in each constituency for an election to be valid.
In October, Pakistan enacted the Elections Act to end disenfranchisement of women. Although a constitutional right, millions of women have been de facto barred from voting through agreements among political parties, local elders, and powerful figures, using outdated customs as an excuse. While the robust female turnout in the Upper Dir by-election could generate greater voting by women there and elsewhere in the future, the Pakistan government needs to do much more to ensure that women can participate on an equal basis in the electoral process.
Twelve million more men than women registered to vote in Pakistan in September 2017, up from nearly 11 million in 2013. A primary reason for this growing gap is the requirement of a Computerized National Identification Card (CNIC) to be eligible to vote. It can be difficult for women to get the ID card because of restrictions on mobility and education in a patriarchal, conservative society. The CNIC is also required to access other essential services and benefits such as government loans and the monthly social security stipend under the Benazir Income Support Program.
According to an estimate by the National Commission on the Status of Women, even if 5,000 new ID cards are issued to women every day, it will take 18 years to bridge the gap between men and women voters. Excluded from the decision making in political parties, women do not have a voice to oppose the illegal agreements to bar them from voting or from running for office.
As the country approaches a general election later this year, the government officials and political parties need to realize that Pakistan cannot become a modern, rights-respecting democracy without the active and equal participation of women.