Closing Pakistan’s electoral gender gap

Jul 15,2018 – JORDAN TIMES – Quratulain Fatima

ISLAMABAD — One hundred years ago, women in the United Kingdom gained the right to vote, and today, most women in the developed world are enfranchised. But in many developing countries, the resistance that British suffragettes faced a century ago, rooted in misogyny, persists. This is certainly true in Pakistan, where the general election set for July 25 provides an ideal opportunity to advocate for change.

At first glance, Pakistan seems progressive. The law has permitted women to vote since 1956, almost a decade after independence from Britain. Since then, the number of women in parliament has steadily increased, aided by a 33 per cent quota and rules dictating how many women must be included on party lists.

Women are also contesting elections with more frequency, even in culturally conservative parts of the country. For example, in the northwestern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a 100-year-old woman is running in the general election against former cricket star Imran Khan. And in Tharparkar, an impoverished part of Sindh province, a female candidate is on the ballot for the first time ever.

But a closer look at voting data reveals many challenges in Pakistan’s push for electoral equality. Female candidates may be on the ballot, but that does not mean women will vote for them, if they vote at all.

Of the country’s 97 million registered voters, 54.5 million are male and 42.4 million are female, the remaining 100,000 are transgender. With a gender gap of roughly 12 million voters, Pakistan ranks last in the world for female participation in elections. A recent analysis of district-level data by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) revealed that even in the most developed parts of the country, such as Lahore and Faisalabad, the gap is more than a half-million.

Part of this is due to administrative hurdles. To vote in Pakistan, voters must register with their National Identity Card (NIC). But many women do not have an NIC, either because they are unaware of the need or cannot apply easily, making it technically impossible to vote. Although an NIC can be requested in person or online, women in Pakistan face serious restrictions on their mobility, and many lack access to the Internet.

But the bigger obstacle is religious and cultural prejudice. For example, during past elections, leaflets circulated warning men not to allow female family members to vote, because women’s participation in democracy was somehow “un-Islamic”. In 2008, not a single woman cast a vote in 31 polling stations in Punjab, Pakistan’s most liberal province. A similar tally marked local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2015.


Quratulain Fatima is a policy practitioner working extensively in rural and conflict-ridden areas of Pakistan with a focus on gender-inclusive development and conflict prevention. She is a 2018 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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