More than 59,000 female voters were kept from voting as per a verbal accord amongst all contesting political parties in Shangla by-polls
By Zia Ur Rehman
20 February, 2010
Rights activists are appalled that women have yet again been barred from exercising their voting rights in the recent by-elections in district Shangla of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). More than 59,000 female voters were kept from voting as per a verbal accord amongst all the contesting political parties.
There were 59,177 female voters among the 145,854 total registered votes in the constituency PK-87 of district Shangla. Only around 100 women were allowed to caste their votes in the by-election held on January 29, reported local media quoting a study of Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).
Women voters were disenfranchised at 14 female polling stations and 69 combined polling stations as per a verbal accord amongst all the contesting political parties including the so-called progressive parties Awami National Party (ANP), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q). PML-Q-backed candidate Muhammad Rashad won the seat by defeating Muhammad Yar Khan, a joint candidate of ANP and PPP.
“All the arrangements were complete at 14 female polling stations and the polling staff was waiting for voters, but not a single woman turned up to cast her vote,” says an officer at Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) when contacted by TNS. He added that the ECP officials held talks with the local elders and representatives of political parties to convince them to allow the women to vote, but to no avail.
“It is a tragedy and mockery of an election when female voters are not allowed to cast their votes,” Saleem Shah, advocacy manager at FAFEN, tells TNS. FAFEN called upon the ECP to look into the widespread disfranchisement of women in the by-election, Shah said, adding “election law mandates a re-vote in polling stations that exclude female voters.” The Shangla polls indicate the government’s failure to create a favourable environment for women’s participation in the polls, human rights activists say.
The practice of barring women to exercise their voting rights has been going on for years in several parts of KP and Fata, and conservative tribal customs support this ban. Shangla, Upper Dir, Lower Dir, Bannu, Battagram, Kohistan and Tor Ghar (Kala Dhaka) are the districts of KP where women are traditionally kept from voting. Normally in every election, workers of political parties take the ID cards from female voters and cast their votes according to a formula agreed upon by all contesting candidates.
In the past elections, especially in local bodies’ elections, media reported that all religious and so-called progressive political parties reached agreements at district level through jirgas. Even in one case, Mufti Gohar Ali, a pro-Taliban leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) of Mardan, had warned that violators of such accord would be fined Rs500,000. Threatening pamphlets issued by militants and religious extremists were plastered on walls in some parts of KP and Fata in previous elections, warning women of suicide attacks if they came out to vote.
“People in most areas of the province, including Shangla, still believe it is humiliating to send their women to polling stations. It is only because of illiteracy and lack of political and social awareness,” Ziauddin Yousafzai, a renowned educationist hailing from Shangla, tells TNS. “The main hurdle which stops women from taking part in political activities is the socio-political prejudice prevailing in the Pashtun society.”
Shangla is amongst the five districts in the country which has the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) along with Kohistan, Dera Bugti, Tharparkar and Jhal Magsi districts. Shangla is the most backward district of KP province. “There is only one school for more than 600,000 female students in district Shangla where the inhuman custom of Swara (using women to end disputes) still continues to be practiced,” says Yousafzai, who is also spokesperson for Swat Qaumi Jirga.
No NGO or a political party bothered to sensitise and educate men and women of Shangla about politics and voting rights, Yousafzai laments. “Women themselves are not willing to caste their votes because they are not aware of importance of their voting rights.”
“We don’t want to send our women to cast their votes because it is dishonour for us to let other men see our mothers, sisters and wives,” says Fayyaz Ali, a supporter of ANP’s candidate in by-polls.
National Commission of the Status of Women (NCSW) also condemned this blatant flouting of the law and demanded that Shangla by-polls be declared null and void. “It is extremely regrettable that though women have 17 percent representation in assemblies, women in Shangla were not allowed to participate in the election,” says Tahira Noor, an office-bearer of NSCW.
Similarly, in the by-polls of NA-21 Mansehra held last year in January, women voters were stopped from exercising their voting rights by male members of their families in Kala Dhaka.
“Gender equity, emancipation of women and female participation in social and political development are part of the manifestos of all those political parties which kept women from voting,” says Idrees Kamal, convenor of Aman Tehreek, an alliance of civil society organisation at KP level. “It is a denial of fundamental and basic right of women voters in a democratic setup.”
Interestingly, women are running indoor campaign for contesting candidates for the by-elections to be held on Feb 28 in Tank KP-69, a constituency bordering South Waziristan Agency, TNS has learnt. In Tank, women voters traditionally play a main role in every election and, in some cases, also sell their votes at polling stations, Malik Arshad Kundi, a political activist, tells TNS.
The writer is an independent journalist and researcher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org