PESHAWAR: As Shangla goes to the polling stations again on Monday, the provincial watchdog on the rights of women has pointed out the key areas which need improvement to ensure a higher turnout for women in the constituency, including a change in cultural norms in the area and creating separate polling stations just for women.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had cancelled the results of the July 25 elections in PK-23 Shangla-I owing to poor turnout of women. Of the 86,698 women registered to vote only 3,505 women had cast their vote in the restive, mountainous yet conservative district of the province. This was less than the 10 per cent of the total votes polled in the constituency — 69,827, as mandated by the Elections Act 2017.
“If the turnout of women voters is less than ten per cent of the total votes polled in a constituency, the commission (ECP) may presume that the women voters have been restrained through an agreement from casting their votes and may declare, polling at one or more polling stations or election in the whole constituency, void,” reads the act.
The ECP had subsequently announced to hold re-polls in the constituency on September 10.
According to the ECP, 13 candidates of different political parties and independents had contested PK-23 Shangla. Provisional results showed that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) candidate Shaukat Ali Yousafzai had won the election by securing 17,399 votes while the runner-up was Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate Muhammad Rashad Khan who could only muster 15,533 votes.
To identify the basic reasons for the low turnout of women in the constituency, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Commission on the Status of Women (K-PCSW) team visited the area and held meetings with community women groups and the district administration. The K-PCSW aimed to learn and understand the causes for low participation of women voters during elections in the constituency and what measures could be taken to increase the participation of women in the by-polls.
During the meeting, local women identified that deep-set cultural norms and the lack of separate polling stations for women were some of the key reasons why women did not opt to exercise their right to franchise, the documents stated.
It further showed that district returning officer and the district election commissioner had responded to the concerns raised by the ECP on revising the polling schemes. However, it stated that re-polls will essentially be held on same scheme as the one issued for the general elections, fearing a repeat of the July 25 results.
However, the delegation learnt that candidates were trying to mobilise their respective supporters to encourage women to step out and vote. The Shangla deputy commissioner, who will be doubling as the district monitoring officer, said that he had asked clerics and prayer leaders to include messages on women’s equality in their Friday sermons.
Moreover, the DC said that it had been agreed that nominated female members of the Shangla District Committee on the Status of Women will link up with the DC office to help with monitoring duties on election day since there was a dearth of female staff to engage on the field.
Moreover, the K-PCSW observed that women turn out at dedicated polling stations during the July 25 elections was greater than in combined polling stations.
The K-PCSW recommended that a committee is formed which comprises civil society members and ECP’s gender working group for the polling day to monitor the process and for meaningful outreach in the district. They also recommended that the commission air public service messages on local television and cable channels in Shangla promote sensitization of communities on the matter.
K-PCSW Programme Director Amna Waheed Durrani told The Express Tribune that their meetings with the district administration and women groups had populated their findings. She hoped that their suggestions would be implemented, especially those relating to reviewing the polling scheme in the long run if it does not suit women in the area to go to joint polling stations to vote.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2018.