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Political toll on women

With the ongoing political developments, constitutional crisis, and judicial intervention, ever wonder how severely this impacts the women of Pakistan? Certainly, the former federal minister for human rights does not agree given her tweet last week to condemn a women’s collective for representing any political ideation.

The National Assembly was dissolved and restored, marred by a number of constitutional violations and political crisis. As the mainstream narrative flows around potential inter-institutional clash, what everyone overlooks is how women are the most affected by the ongoing crisis. The developing situation further exacerbates political and electoral spaces for women across the country.

Given that soaring political temperatures have translated into clashes amongst political parties and are expected to rise as the country moves into election campaigning, women have been the frontline victims of political violence. It is feared that as the country prepares for the next general elections, violence against women contestants as well as women voters will escalate.

Women being manipulated into scuffling with women from opposing political parties puts at risk decades of progress made in terms of claiming space, voice and agency for women. While a popular misogynist mindset across the country targets the role and efficiency of women legislators, incidents like these add fuel to such rhetoric fire. Misogynistic slurs, offensive and patronizing language used towards women in political space have become acceptable in public events, rallies and in the media. Such harassment and intimidation discourages girls and women aspiring to enter politics and leadership roles.

As I write these words, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) takes the center stage with news on the grapevine that early elections may be called in the next six months. However, the missing 10 million women voters remain the biggest question mark. With a high percentage of disenfranchised young girls between the ages of 18 and 25, calls for early elections makes it nearly impossible for the ECP to expedite the registration process on such tight timeline.

Under Section 37 of the Elections Act 2017, all electoral rolls will have to be finalized and submitted 30 days before the elections (to leave time for correction), leaving a mere five months for the ECP to undertake such a Herculean task. Even if the registration process is expedited to maximize women voter registration, it might still not be possible to close the scale of this electoral gender gap – leaving millions of women politically voiceless.

Another Damocles sword is the recent amendment to Section 104 of the Elections Act 2017, by the government. Previously political parties submitted their women and non-Muslim candidates’ lists for reserved seats prior to general elections to the concerned Returning Officer appointed by the Election Commission. The 2021 amendment stipulates that political parties must submit their final priority list of women/non-Muslim candidates for reserved seats within three days after declaration of general election results.

While a core violation of this amendment is its lack of transparency to voters who are kept unaware of party preference for reserved seats until the elections have been held and results announced. This also takes away the agency of women political workers as it binds them to the whims of political party leaderships, fuels intra-party monopolies and promotes nepotism as compared to selection based purely on meritocratic bases.

Simultaneously, the local government (LG) setup remains the weakest and patchiest in Pakistan’s journey to democratic governance. Protected by the constitution in Articles 32 and 140-A, all provincial governments have undertaken reforms to their LG laws in the past few years, and continue to maintain a centralised system of governance. This has further marginalized women’s effective participation in local governance and decision-making. With the ongoing political frenzy and untimely burden on the Election Commission of Pakistan’s to administer early general elections, it is feared that the local government elections would be postponed yet again.

Decentralization of power opens up critical avenues for women to prioritize political needs at the local level, articulate their interests, enter arenas of political decision-making and advance a women rights agenda; lack of governance space is detrimental to the cause altogether.

If the joint opposition votes PM Imran Khan out and forms a coalition government, they must ensure women’s representation in the upcoming electoral processes and political decision-making. It is equally essential that any undemocratic electoral reforms that adversely affect women be undone.

Hassan Hakeem, "Political toll on women," The News. 2022-04-09.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political party , Political workers , Transparency , Leadership , Governance , PM Imran Khan , Pakistan , ECP , LG