By: Nilofar Bakhtiar, Chairperson-National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) and Van Nguyen, Deputy Resident Representative, UNDP Pakistan
As Pakistan gears up for its general elections scheduled for February 8, the nation witnesses a monumental moment in its democratic journey, with 128.5 million individuals – over half of the country’s population – registered to cast their votes. A notable highlight of this electoral season is the unprecedented registration of female voters, with women constituting 12.5 million of the 22.5 million new voters since 2018. This demographic shift not only underscores a potential change in voter dynamics but also marks a significant stride towards gender inclusivity in the electoral process.
Barriers to Women’s Political Participation
The increase in female voter registration is a promising development, yet it doesn’t automatically ensure higher turnout at the polls, especially among women. Historical data from the 2018 elections highlights a gender disparity in voter turnout, with women participating at a lower rate than men. Despite the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) reporting a decrease in the National Identity Card (NIC) gap, challenges remain in translating these registrations into actual votes.
The intricate interplay of social, cultural, and economic factors influencing women’s voting behaviour is complex, often counterintuitive, and reflective of broader development challenges within the country. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Pakistan ranks at 115 out of 190 countries, in terms of representation of women, highlighting the challenges to women’s political participation. The social and cultural dynamics that govern the decision not to secure a NIC, or cast a vote, are varied, and include, among other reasons, disproportionately high mobility restrictions - owing to economic constraints, weather conditions or security considerations - and responsibility for household chores.
The Role of Quota Systems and Political Representation
Post-devolution efforts have seen some progress in increasing women’s political and electoral representation through an increase in reserved seats and constituency voter composition. The efficacy of quota systems in enhancing women's political participation has been debated. Nonetheless, the importance of ensuring a minimum guaranteed participation rate cannot be overstated in a country where political and social dynamics significantly influence inclusivity. Unfortunately, reports from civil society and media highlight a concerning trend: the percentage of women on general party tickets falls below 5% for some of the major political parties in the upcoming elections. This oversight underscores an urgent need for reforms that ensure broader representation and participation in Pakistan's political process.
Combating Discrimination, Hate Speech, and Harassment
Despite the claim of inclusivity championed by mainstream political parties, not a single ticket among the thousands available for the National and Provincial assemblies has been issued to a representative of the transgender community. Hate speech and harassment remain prevalent, affecting not only women and transgender persons but also ethnic minorities and differently abled persons. The pervasive normalization of hate speech, often targeted towards women and vulnerable minorities can have far-reaching implications, with a clear link to further marginalisation and violence. The risk of not adequately addressing these issues through targeted legislation is significant, especially given evidence that 94% of such disinformation campaigns target the credibility of the electoral management body.
The Development Sector's Role in Promoting Inclusivity
The development sector plays a crucial role in knitting together the diverse strands of capacity building and institutional strengthening to create more inclusive spaces within Pakistan’s democratic framework. The establishment of innovative educational platforms could be considered for expanding civic space, reinforcing the ECP, and empowering a new generation of political leaders, with a special focus on enhancing the capabilities of women to ensure their effective and impactful participation in the political arena.
As advocates for sustainable development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) champions an accelerated approach to advancing systemic change. Our substantial investments in key public institutions like the ECP aim to render electoral processes more transparent, accountable, and accessible. Our commitment extends to the capacity building of newly elected women councillors, highlighting our dedication to gender inclusivity. In collaboration with other UN agencies and the National Commission on the Status of Women, UNDP has engaged in comprehensive consultations to address systemic and emerging challenges related to information integrity and personal attacks on political representatives, particularly women. These discussions culminated in the ECP integrating recommendations on combating hate speech, as proposed by the NCSW-led consultations in 2023, into its Code of Conduct.
Conclusion: Toward a More Inclusive Political Space
As Pakistan prepares for its general elections, this momentous occasion offers a profound reflection on the strides made towards a more inclusive public space and the challenges that lie ahead. The unprecedented registration of female voters signifies a hopeful shift towards gender inclusivity, yet it also underscores the persistent barriers to full electoral participation. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach, from enhancing women's representation in politics to combating hate speech and ensuring the integrity of the electoral process. UNDP, alongside its partners, remains committed to supporting Pakistan in this journey, advocating for systemic changes that empower all citizens, regardless of gender or background. By supporting an environment that nurtures political inclusivity and engagement, we can ensure that Pakistan's democracy continues to evolve, reflecting the true diversity and strength of its people.