Pakistan Elections 2013: Women and the Youth

30 Apr, 2013    ·   3898

Zainab Akhter looks at whether their presence in the process could be a potential game changer

Zainab Akhter
Zainab Akhter
Research Officer

In Pakistan, the participation of women in politics is increasing in general but the presence of women in the political parties as well as in the political structure at the local, provincial, and national levels remains insignificant due to cultural and structural barriers. This election (11 May 2013) will be a bit different in two ways, firstly two tribal women are in the fray for the direct seat in Parliament for the first time, and secondly some parties are trying to woo the youth of the country to come out and vote.

This commentary will try to probe into the overall status of women in politics and the election process, and to look into whether the youth bulge in the upcoming politics can be a game changer.

Representation of Women: The Obstacles
Although the constitution of Pakistan guarantees dignity, freedom and equality to all citizens and forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, women remain marginalized in various aspects of public participation. This includes political participation, both in terms of holding office and voting. Not only do women face formidable barriers to entry in the public sector, they are exceedingly disenfranchised, eroding their political stakes and diluting their political power. Women are under-registered in electoral rolls, face opposition when trying to vote, and are turned away from the polls. According to Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, “Pakistan is a mysoginistic society and the reason behind discouraging women from casting vote or fighting elections is partly societal, parlty religious and partly cultural. There is a need to create an objective environment where there is no unnecessary obstacle for the women and they are able to fight elections and participate in politics”, he added.

Although the notion of having 60% seats reserved for women has been achieved in Pakistan, but the question is how many of them win on direct seats. Most of them are nominated candidates who either belong to an influential family or have a political backup. It is not to deny the fact that there are, and have been, charismatic and competent women leaders like Sherry Rehman and Benazir Bhutto. They are part of a small, but significant, number of women who have marked their place in the country’s political arena. Speaking of the current situation of women in Pakistan, Senior Pakistan Analyst, Rana Banerji said, “In the present scenario, women’s liberty in Pakistan does not necessarily make any point because there are no charismatic leader after Benazir Bhutto who could get elected on their own strength in unreserved constituencies and also it will take a long time for women’s emancipication to reach acceptable levels that are prevalent in a more democratic society like India”.

However, most parties do not take the views of women specifically into account while drawing up election manifestos, and women who are consulted are those with an already strong status in the parties, often on the basis of their family background. For most women in Pakistan's war-torn and ultra-conservative frontier region, casting a vote in an election is an impossible dream, let alone standing as a candidate. The coming forward of tribal women, Badam Zari for the first time, who is running for the parliamentary seat in the upcoming elections is seen as a welcome change by many experts, but will it make a difference in the overall process can only be said after the election results.

The Youth Factor: Will it make a difference?
The youth in Pakistan have not played any significant role in the elections until now, but this time, they are expected to play a major role in the whole process. The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) are focusing on the youth and both have developed special schemes, youth policies, and are giving 25% tickets to the youth in order to wow them. The PML-N has started a laptop programme and loan schemes for the youth. To some extent, the factor of Imran Khan in the PTI, being a former star cricketer is also attracting the youth to his party, but Imran Khan has done lots of developmental work like the creation of a University and Hospital which are also connecting people to his party and adding to his appeal.

The PTI has been extremely active in the social networking sector, which is a new front being opened in politics; they have special cells which have been working very quickly on the updates. The young people are the show runners on most of these networking sites and they do campaign on these sites. One comment against Imran Khan and these pages becomes a hotbed of comments and counter comments. But whether this networking factor will be able to play out at the polling station remains to be seen. The middle class in Pakistan, like in India, is abdicated from the state so it is to be seen if the social media this time brings this section in the political sphere. If it happens, it needs to be welcomed as it could be a bit of a game changer in many urban seats.

For change to happen, to improve women's rights in society, and women's participation in elections, both men and women have to understand what the needs are and what the best is for society in the future. In Pakistan's last elections, only 44 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. This time, will the coming forward of tribal women and the way certain parties are trying to involve the youth make an impact on the election process or not would be clear only after the elections are over and the results announced.

To follow the rest of the debate, click:
PR Chari, IPCS Commentary #3890
Rana Banerji, IPCS Commentary #3851
D. Suba Chandran, IPCS Commentary, #3869
Zainab Akhter, IPCS Commentary, #3898
Sushant Sareen, IPCS Audio Commentary
Rana Banerji, IPCS Audion Commentary