As Pakistan gears up for elections this spring, local peacebuilders have discovered deliberate obstacles to women casting their votes – and are taking action to remove them.
Their concerns focus on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a turbulent province on the border with Afghanistan that is heavily affected by violent extremism. Here powerful currents of tribal custom and religious militancy combine. Purda is strictly observed and women are severely limited in their independence.
“At election time, the community elders restrict women from casting their votes, under the influence of religious groups or the political parties,” explains local peacebuilder Gulalai Ismail. “A written agreement is signed by the elders, that no woman will be allowed to come out of her home and cast the vote.
“In some cases, these forces compel the political candidates to sign an agreement to prevent women of their groups from coming to the polling station. They may even compel the election staff to stop any woman from casting her vote.”
Voter suppression is not the only problem: “The other issue we witnessed in rural areas is that women do not use their votes according to their own choice. They follow male members of their family, who even tell them which candidates to vote for.”
To combat these abuses, Gulalai and her organisation Aware Girls have set up election monitoring teams – composed of women. The teams will visit polling stations before the election to check that suitable facilities are provided for women voters. On election day, they will observe the vote to ensure that none are turned away or manipulated in their choice. And afterwards they will evaluate events and provide a detailed report on women’s voting for the national electoral commission.
Gulalai adds: “We want policy makers and the Election Commission of Pakistan to make legislation and take action to create an environment where women can use their right to vote without any fear and according to their choice.”
The vote is set for May 2013. Funding is now sought by Aware Girls for a follow-on project to create local women’s committees that can discuss and influence political developments.