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What kept women from voting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? 

The disaster risk reduction community is increasingly emphasising the vital need to include marginalised - and the most vulnerable - groups so as to help build greater resilience, while other groups are looking to the role of women to help counter violent radicalisation. In CRJ 10:4 Kevin Blanchard examines gender and disaster risk reduction within the new Sendai Framework, agreed at the WCDRR in March 2015, while Editorial Advisory Panel Member Andy Marshall presents Part I of his research looking at women in civil contingencies.

But it would seem there may be a long way to go in some areas as CRJ's Pakistan correspondent Luavut Zahid describes how Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province recently made headlines for what is being seen as one of the most sexist elections to have taken place in its history – not a single woman’s vote came in during the May 7 by-polls in the Lower Dir district.

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These women from Rawalpindi queued for their chance to have a say in Pakistan's elections in May 2013, joining 100,000 women who have been helped to vote for the first time ever, thanks to UK aid. Yet this year, in Khyber Pakhutnukhwa, not one woman cast a vote (Rachel Clayton/DFID)

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) does not know how to intervene since the women-free elections seem to have transpired through not just the consensus of the contesting parties, but also that of the local inhabitants of the area. While the local government has confirmed that a deal was made to keep women out, the candidates continue to deny anything of the sort happened.

The province has over 127,000 registered voters of which, according to reports, 47,000 are women – none of whom voted.

Meanwhile, the issue led to a great hue and cry in the Senate with a legislator recommending that specific legislation be brought about to make sure the episode does not repeat itself. “I’m going to move a bill in the Senate in a bid to ensure the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) does not declare the election results when women are kept out of the election process,” Senator Kalsoom Parveen had said. The legislation itself is still elusive.

The Senate also discussed reasons women did not vote. This included ECP’s failure to set up separate polling booths or bring in female staff for them. Murtaza Solangi, a current affairs analyst from Pakistan, seemed to confirm this when he tweeted: “I am told that ECP didn't provide separate polling booths for women in the conservative constituency of KP-95 where women didn't vote.”

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can easily be called the most conservative of all provinces in Pakistan. In a place where women’s modesty cannot be questioned, the voting was not going to happen.

Change on the way? Perhaps not

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a problematic province when it comes to women’s rights. Lack of female representation in terms of choosing their own fate has led to a female only Jirga (tribal council) sprouting up in Swat. Unsurprisingly, reaction from the male-only Jirga, which still remains dominant, was lukewarm at best (and that is putting it mildly). To expect that this issue will be resolved in a manner which helps women could perhaps be a little too optimistic.

What is troubling is that this is not the first time something like this has happened. Women have been kept out of the voting process multiple times. They were not a part of the last election or the one before it. The issue has not been highlighted as much as it should be because the country has never had two democratic terms one after the other ever before.

Previously, Kohistan, Batagram, Upper Dir, etc. have been known to stifle the female vote. During 2000 and 2001, religious clerics termed the system un-Islamic because of seats that had been reserved for women and rigorously campaigned for women to be kept from voting – they won.

The Aurat Foundation is fighting against the current voting debacle. Terming the act of keeping women out of the voting process illegal, they have taken on the task of fighting the results and getting them termed null and void. However, this is not the first time the organisation will have fought something like this, and lost.

During 2004, similar petitions against similar voting results were thrown out by the courts on technical grounds. The court, while acknowledging that the constitution has been failed, did nothing to return their constitutional right to vote back to the women.

In another instance, a Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court issued a suo moto notice during 2013 to move against the dire lack of female representation. However, his decision, too, was thrown out after a political candidate moved the apex court against it – this time too, technical issues were cited as the cause. This is significant because the courts have repeatedly used ‘sou moto’ notices to get speedy justice, and have been welcomed by the people; only in this case the actions were questioned.

When I reached out to Talib Hussain, Director ECP Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he told me that the ECP recorded statements from the contesting candidates on May 18 and further investigation of the issue is currently underway. However, without any credible evidence of wrongdoing the ECP is not going to be able to take any action.

How does one track verbal agreements of this nature made between people in power? There is no paper trail will lead anywhere, and if there is one the ECP will not be the one to find it. What we are seeing is helplessness at all fronts, even when the courts want to they cannot move to action in the matter.

Now cultural barriers and the women’s ‘choice not to care’ are being touted as the actual reasons for the zero turnouts. It would seem that the by-polls are on their way to becoming another instance where women were stripped of a fundamental right.

Luavut Zahid is a professional journalist based in Lahore, is CRJ's correspondent in Pakistan and curates blogs from Pakistan for CRJ's website 

Luavut Zahid, 08/06/2015
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