Women's rights and compulsory voting

Imagine living in a country where people do not have a right to vote. This is how thousands of women Pakistani citizens in some areas of NWFP must feel after being deliberately "disfranchised" in the recent general elections by virtue of an unholy agreement between candidates, prominent leaders and notables who pledged not to allow their women folk to cast votes. There is even evidence that some of these decrees were executed in writing and signed by candidates of all political parties. The unfortunate but inevitable fact is (and this is proved from the polling results in these constituencies) that the patently illegal contracts were performed in letter and spirit and most, if not all, women were restrained from voting, often through use or threat of force and violence. The Election Commission of Pakistan has condemned and warned against this practice but has, post election, thrown in the towel and shown its inability to do anything about it on the ground that it has no suo moto power to nullify an election where women do not vote on account of, for example, family and social pressures. European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) has published their final report on National Provincial Assemblies and has inter alia expressed their worry that "there were reports of several agreements in tribal agencies, NWFP, and a few rural areas of Punjab and Sindh by local leaders, banning women from voting" This is indeed a cause of grave concern and a solution must be found to protect the rights of these citizens while remaining within the context of the social order. There is no doubt it is the inalienable right of every Pakistani citizen, both men and women, to cast a vote to elect the representatives of their choice and under the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan there can be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. Under the electoral laws too it is an offence if someone directly or indirectly uses or threatens to use force, violence or restraint in order to compel a person from propagating against participation of any person in elections on the basis of gender. This basic principle has also been reiterated in many judgments of our superior courts. On religious grounds too women have and are entitled to full protection of equal rights viz a viz men. The EC has been claiming to uphold these principles, yet it has been unable to act against the candidates or men folk of these women under the law or to declare the elections held in these constituencies void in spite of clear violations of the electoral rules and the constitution. It is one thing to have and profess adherence to law and quite another to have the will and capacity to enforce it. The Election Commission of Pakistan unconvincingly informed the EU EOM that it cannot annul a vote in such circumstances on its own initiative. The European observers sadly commented that "This is a narrow reading of its powers which include extensive powers to ensure just and fair conduct of the elections." What then is to be done? One cannot sit around and accept the fact that the constitutional rights of these women in the Islamic and democratic country of Pakistan should continue to be violated and they should remain voiceless because it is a ground reality that the male gender of the area have deemed it fit and proper that women of their family have no right to vote. Clearly the law has to be structured to correct the distortion. I admit that it may not be easy to prove whether the women failed to vote out of their own free will or due to fear and intimidation of their own husbands, fathers and brothers. This is because it is unlikely that a woman would give any evidence against the men of their family. In my view entire paradigm has to be changed. It is not enough to recognize that voting is a right, it is equally important to enforce it as a civil responsibility. What needs to be introduced in the system is the concept of "compulsory voting" under which a citizen is required to participate in the democratic process and vote by imposing sanctions in the nature of fines or withdrawal of privileges if a citizen does not vote and giving incentives if he/she does. The concept of compulsory voting is neither unique nor new. It is widely known all over the world and in many countries in the west and in Asia where voting is regarded as a duty, it has been made compulsory and sanctions are imposed on non voters (approximately 30 countries in the world today make voting compulsory). It is standard practice for example in Australia, Belgium, Argentina, Luxembourg, Greece, Cyprus, Switzerland, Singapore and Thailand and was so in many others (e.g. Netherlands until 1970, Venezuela until mid 1990s etc). Other countries like Italy and Austria continue to retain some element of compulsory voting too. Interestingly most of these countries introduced the system of compulsory voting after the right of women citizens to vote was recognized and accepted. One of the reasons why it was deemed necessary to make voting a duty was to ensure that "women are not denied by their men folk the chance to vote." Often the right to vote for women was combined with an obligation to participate and vote in elections because there was great pressure from the men to keep them "in doors" to "cook and clean". Although Pakistani women have been given the right to vote since a long time, the denial of this right in the last general elections (as well as in the year 2002) that like other countries similarly situated we also need to introduce concept of imposition of sanctions and grants of incentives in order to ensure that this practice is checked. Law has to provide the lead in this area. Different countries have used different manner of enforcing the responsibility to vote. Switzerland, Cyprus and Austria those registered voters who failed to vote are to pay a fine. In Australia it can lead to imprisonment for non-payment of fine. In Belgium failure to vote can lead to disfranchisement. In Peru one must carry proof of having voted for several months and failure to vote would disentitle the non voter from obtaining goods and services from public offices. In Singapore a non voter is removed from the voters list. In Bolivia one cannot draw salaries from banks if one does not vote. In other countries like Greece one cannot obtain driving license or passport if one does not vote. In Belgium it is difficult to get a public sector job if you are a non voter. On the other hand in many laws people are given an incentive to vote such as a sum off their taxes. Our new Parliament has been elected fortunately this time through a credible election which raises great expectations from our law makers. They should be aware that Pakistan is a state party to the Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. They should put their heads together and try to fill in the gap between the law and its implementation as indicated above by bridging the electoral laws so as to provide not only the right to vote but to insist for voting as a responsibility by adopting some of the measures as were tried by other countries in similar circumstances. If for example provision at the utility stores be made conditional to a person having voted or going for Umrah dependent on a certificate of having voted, it might make a change. Such a law will be a great catalyst for reform. Compulsory voting has additional advantages. Statistics have shown that the voter turnout has increased in countries with some kind of compulsory voting. Whereas in some countries people from lower socio economic groups or traditionally marginalized groups do not take interest in the electoral process and were motivated to do so through compulsory voting, ironically in Pakistan it is the elite class which prefer to enjoy a holiday on the election day rather to take the trouble of going to the election booth. The concept of responsibility and compulsion will show them the way to the polling station. The compulsory law also enforces something closer to a true "majority rule" rather than allowing governments to be elected with support of a minority of potential voters. A larger turnout will indeed enhance the legitimacy of the Government and its decisions. Advocates of compulsory voting also argue that voting has an educational effect on citizens and creates a sense of unity in the nation. Having made out a case for casting vote not only a right but a responsibility and hoping that the law makers will take the issue seriously I would draw my attention next to the civil society. The final responsibility no doubt rests on the leaders of public opinion who can work together to change the deeply held traditional use about the roles of men and women in society. Civil society (NGOs and others) should play a more substantial role in voter education, a civic education campaign should be undertaken to get into the areas where the tradition for discriminating women particularly with regard to voting should be targeted and in this connection the religious scholars can be enlisted and convinced that even women were given the right to vote during the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who accepted Bait from the women as well as the same practice was continued by Khulfay-e-Rashidin. NWFP has a progressive Government in power. While the issue concerns all Pakistanis, it is also a matter of particular interest to the inhabitants of NWFP. It is the constitutional duty of all representatives to protect the rights of each citizen including women. In order to achieve this and also in order for ensuring the next elections more legitimate and representative, ANP and all other political parties must take steps to propagate, promulgate and implement the laws for compulsory voting on an urgent basis. The journey towards democracy is not over just yet till every man and woman is entitled to freely vote. I can do no better than to quote from Jinnah who said: "No nation can make any progress without the cooperation of women. If the woman supports their men as they did in the days of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) we should realize our goals" The women of NWFP are no less than any, and their participation in our national life is just as essential as that of any other citizen. If compulsory voting for the entire nation is a means to protect them, then so be it. E-mail: ali@mandviwallaandzafar.com

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