Op-Ed

Where are the Women in Pakistan’s elections this week?

Pakistan has a huge voting gender gap — and it could take 18 years to close it, according to one estimate. But some progress is being made

In this picture taken on July 6, 2018, Pakistani woman Fouzia Talib, who voted in a local government election in 2015 in Mohri Pur, holds her daughter at her home in Multan. Men banned women from voting in the village of Mohri Pur sometime around 1947, and they have obeyed ever since -- until this year. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Increasingly suspect and violent elections will determine Pakistan’s new government on Wednesday. And from the candidate ballot to voting rolls, women are missing.

Despite the fact that women in Pakistan won the right to vote in national elections in 1956, the nation places dead last globally on women’s participation in elections. “Pakistan has a 12.5 million voter difference between men and women, a ridiculously high gender gap,” says Lahore lawyer Saroop Ijaz of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Pakistan. “One reason for that is the requirement for Computer National Identity Card (CNIC) to be eligible to vote.” Even as traditional and religious barriers persist, it is lack of digital, legal identification that will keep most women from the polls this week — and prevent Pakistani women from achieving equality beyond election day.

No CNIC, No Votes for Women

More than 96 million residents and expat Pakistanis hold biometric, digital, and secure CNIC cards.  Issued at the age of 18 and required to access more than 336 services from the government, it is a must-have for modern economic life, from applying for a business loan to obtaining a driver’s license — or voting.

“Despite the significant increase in number of CNICs issued to women over the years and the remarkable female voter turnout in the General Elections in 2013, the gender gap in voter registration is still increasing,” says Aisha Mukhtar of U.N. Women Pakistan. “Mainly because a large number of women continue to remain deprived of their legal identity and cannot exercise their constitutional right to vote.”

Discriminatory legal and cultural barriers make women less likely to have an official ID and shut them out of political and economic opportunity. Pakistan is one of only 11 countries where a woman must obtain national legal identification differently than a man. A woman cannot apply without her marriage contract, permission from her husband, or his ID card.  Without a CNIC, Pakistani women are technically barred from voting and other basic functions that men take for granted — leaving them unable to open a bank account, buy a plane ticket, start a business, or even purchase their own mobile phone due to Know Your Customer laws.

Launched by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in 2000, Pakistan’s ID efforts have largely been a success story in bringing identity into the digital age. NADRA’s registration drives deployed women-driven recruitment vans, but faced numerous challenges, from warlords to unwilling husbands.

“There are some places in Pakistan where women voters have been banned since independence and still can’t vote due to [lack of an] identity card and local authorities who don’t believe women should have a voice in elections,” says Quratulain Fatima, a Pakistani Air Force veteran and policy expert on gender inclusive development. “Women lack access to the internet and have restrictions on their mobility. The government needs to fund more campaigns to register women where they are at, going to their homes to get them registered and political parties also have to do their part, if they want these women to be their voters.”

Creative identity policy: Ready to pay monthly for women’s equality

Instead of political party outreach, it was a safety net cash transfer program that drove a massive bump in CNIC enrollment for women in the poorest Pakistani communities. Launched in 2008 by the government of Pakistan with support from the World Bank, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) is a case study in how innovative identification policies can empower more women.

“The government’s efforts have played a major role in incentivizing women’s CNIC enrollment through economic empowerment schemes such as BISP, which makes CNIC possession a pre-requisite for beneficiary enrollment and subsequent access to stipend and services,” says U.N. Women’s Mukhtar.

Purpose-built by the government to boost enrollment of women, only a woman head of household with a CNIC could receive the monthly $15 BISP cash benefits.  It was an unmitigated success, helping drive a 94 percent increase in women obtaining CNIC and contributing to a total of 40 million women in Pakistan having CNIC within just four years.

Bringing together BISP and CNIC also bolstered women’s personal economic and political agency.  Women who received CNICs received more respect in their families, spoke up more about household matters, and, for the first time, felt economically empowered. Since women received the funds directly, some 64 percent of women recipients reported now having a voice in how money was spent, usually directing it to food, health, and education.  And political engagement was also an unexpected result of the program, with women wanting to know more about their rights as citizens and BISP participants even expressing they would vote more than those women who didn’t participate.

Want to vote this week?  Come back in 18 years

The greatest barriers to women participating in this week’s election could be bureaucracy and abject neglect. Pakistan’s National Commission on the Status of Women recently estimated based on current CNIC processing times, it will take 18 years to close the voting gap between women and men voters. And Pakistani advocates agree that this election didn’t bring the government outreach and education campaigns needed to ensure increased CNIC enrollment and register new women voters.

“In the last elections, NADRA had mainstream media programs and advertisements to support women’s voter registration, issuing national ID cards, and encouraging women to participate in the process,” said lawyer and Digital Rights Pakistan Founder Nighat Dad. “This time around, we haven’t seen such campaigns.”

“The voting gender gap could have been much smaller, had the government been more active in reaching out to women to sign up for CNIC, that should have been done much earlier and been ongoing and constant,” agreed Ijaz of HRW. “For the last two years, women’s voting and participation has been part of the national conversation, but I don’t think the benefits of those legal changes will be evident in this election.”

Legal changes that work:  If women don’t vote, the vote doesn’t count

Pakistani advocates agree that one way to increase the number of women both gaining legal identity and political representation would be changing election laws to increase the minimum threshold of women’s participation. In October 2017, Pakistan passed an ambitious Elections Act, mandating that at least 10 percent of voters in each constituency must be women, or the results will be invalidated.

“Why have they set such a low bar?” asked Dad, who has been actively monitoring women’s engagement in the current elections. “It should be at least 25 percent and there should be punishment for people who don’t allow women to vote. There are entire villages where women are not allowed to step outside their homes on election day in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southern Punjab.”

Indeed, in 2008, not one vote was cast by a woman in 31 polling places in Punjab, despite being one of Pakistan’s most progressive states for women’s legal and economic rights. But recent examples show legal reforms are working. In one of the first cases of the new law being applied, a local Upper Dir 2017 election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was invalidated. At the new election, women came out out to vote for the first time in decades. And in 2015, Fouzia Talib voted for the first time in her southern Punjab village, after a lifetime of being blocked by town tradition and “respect for our forefathers.” She cast her vote with court-ordered police protection. As AFP recently reported, more women in her town are set to follow her lead this year.

Dawn newspaper columnist and author Rafia Zakaraia sees cause for cautious optimism for women’s political and economic empowerment in Pakistan’s demographic trends. “When women come into urban areas and get economic opportunity, they increase the likelihood they will participate in the political process. There’s increased awareness of the necessity of voting and that’s your chance to have some modicum of influence on the political process. But even then, the independence with which they can do that is questionable.”

In that fight for self-determination, legal identification is only the first step in Pakistani women’s political and economic participation. Though Pakistan has made significant progress in registering women, remaining administrative, legal and cultural obstacles come at a high price.  Keeping women out of formal financial systems and the voting booth robs the nation of crucial contributors to economic growth, and the voices of half its citizens.

Meighan Stone is a senior fellow at the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and former president of the Malala Fund. Follow her on Twitter here.

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