There is no honor in barring women from voting
24 Jun 2015 by Marc-André Franche, Country Director, UNDP in Pakistan
On 30 May, the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan went to the polls to exercise their hard-earned democratic right to choose their local leaders.
But newspaper reports emerged of candidates, community elders, and religious leaders conspiring to bar women from voting. In an earlier by-election, local media reported that out of 47,280 registered women voters, not a single woman cast her vote, following a decision by local leaders to ban women from voting.
It is a depressing reminder that aspects of Pakistan’s political culture remain far removed from the democratic ideals that have characterized the struggle for democracy in this country.
Pakistani women are serving in the armed forces and increasing numbers of women are joining the police; putting their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens and serve their country. Such noble sacrifice and contribution should be a source of national pride and not diminished by those misguided few who believe their gender disqualifies them from voting.
Such practices have no place in a democratic society. They should be consistently rejected and challenged by all those who subscribe to the concept of multi-party democracy and are committed to strengthening the democratic system in Pakistan.
A glimmer of hope has come from the protest and condemnation by local civil society organizations determined to expose what is happening, and the willingness of the media to bring such stories to the attention of a wider audience. This sends a reminder to those who believe such practices can be justified on cultural grounds that others in Pakistan think differently and are not prepared to stay silent.
But rhetorical rejection alone will not be sufficient to prevent such practices from reoccurring. Legislation is required to make such practices illegal and we urge the Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms to give due consideration to this in light of recent developments.
Political party leaders in particular need to add to the chorus of condemnation and sanction those in their ranks who violate the basic democratic ethos of their respective party brands.
Doing nothing, or saying little, sends an equivocal message that inadvertently risks creating a permissive environment for the continuation and proliferation of such activities.
But, the consequences are much broader than this.
The disenfranchisement of women voters, and the conscious violation of their basic rights, makes it harder for Pakistan to articulate a credible narrative to the outside world of a country moving forward, of a democratic system evolving, of Pakistan’s desire to become an example of progress for others to emulate. It calls into question what type of country Pakistan wants to be: a circumscribed democracy or a fully-fledged one.
Accomplishing development goals is not possible if women are denied meaningful political participation. No country will reach its full potential if its female citizens do not enjoy full equality. The countries which are making the most progress towards achieving MDG targets are those which have vibrant local government systems with an emphasis on participatory development.
The active engagement of all members of local communities, particularly women, in decision-making processes is vital to improving living standards and ensuring sustainable development goals are met.
If women are denied their rightful role as key agents of change, the story in the future risks being one of delayed development and unmet targets. In the challenging context of KP, this scenario would severely undermine collective efforts currently being undertaken by all stakeholders to promote stability in the province.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in similar scenarios globally, such a story produces no winners.