Although women account for half of Pakistan’s population, they have historically lagged behind men in legal and political rights. However, the trend is changing for good. The new Elections Act gives the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) the power to declare any election null and void if less than 10 per cent women cast their vote. The authority vested in ECP to call an election null and void because of less than 10 per cent female turn out has allowed women in many conservative areas of Punjab, KP and Balochistan to cast their votes for the first time in their lives. ECP’s resolution to bring female voters out on the day of election met with success on 25 July 2018.
Since 2013, the trend of low female turnout has changed. Since then, ECP maintains a separate record of female participation in any polling process. Is ECP’s emphasis on increasing female participation in the electoral process of any benefit? Yes. In any democracy, a citizen’s vote is an empowering tool, which is useful only if exercised. Though the ECP’s directions to authorities in towns notorious for barring women from polling succeeded in enhancing female participation, nevertheless, there were two constituencies, both in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where female votes were less than 10 per cent of the total votes cast, i.e., NA-10 (Shangla) and NA-48 (North Waziristan).
While it is yet to be determined what factors discouraged women from exercising their voting right in the districts mentioned above; reducing the practice of discouraging women to vote to just two constituencies is a feat in itself. Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) too has appreciated the measures taken by the ECP in the past few years to increase women participation in the polling process and its particular focus on increasing women enrolment on electoral rolls.
However, now the ECP needs to set a higher benchmark of women's participation to ensure a further increase in female voting. As the ECP has succeeded in breaking the patriarchal barriers, the commission should insert a clause in Elections Act that demands at least 20 per cent female votes in any future elections. At the same time, it would be unjust not to appreciate the roles that media and different NGOs have played and worked hard in conservative areas to impart civic education, which played a significant role in increasing women turnout. The elections of 2018 can be called unprecedented regarding women participation both as voters and candidates on general seats, making their presence felt.