Pakistan just held a historic election, but civil society is protesting over thousands of women barred from the polls by Islamic radicals and the fresh killings of aid workers in the world’s most dangerous place for humanitarians.
The May 11 vote — the first ever to come after the government completed a full five-year term after a succession of military dictators — was shadowed by these two concerns, sparking an outcry from civil society movements and NGOs.
Pakistan, often called a democratic victory, had 11 million less female than male registered voters out of the total pool of 86 million with the right to vote in the elections. Figures from the Election Commission show that only one in every three voters was a woman in many polling stations, especially — according to aid groups — in areas controlled by Islamic radicals.
A spokesperson from the Pakistan NGOs Forum told Devex that political parties in those precincts agreed to forbid women from casting their votes. The factions include the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarian, Awami National Party, Jumati Islami-Tarazo, Jamiatul Ulema Islam, Qomi Watan Party, Pakistan Tehreeki Insaf–PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Community elders in the Bandagai district (Dir Upper) for instance prohibited any women from voting in their polling station.
In many cases, the agreements were said to be made off the record to avoid repercussions, while in others they were made binding on all candidates and voters, with a fine of up to 10 million Pakistani rupees ($101,500) for violators.
Aid groups are now calling for fresh ballots in the areas affected by the ban, citing violation of constitutional rights on female suffrage.
Support With Working Solution CEO Javed Akhter, a member of the gender-based violence division of the Protection Cluster in Pakistan, told Devex that a network of local NGOs are gearing up for a protest, preparing an action plan and collecting documentary proof to be used in an advocacy campaign.
The movement has been however challenged by the remote location of the polling stations involved and the deep-seated influence of radical Islamic groups in these areas.
Islamic extremists have also been involved in attacks on aid workers, which led humanitarian groups to brace for the conduct of the elections in the South Asian country earlier this month, and on Tuesday a vaccine worker was killed and another was seriously injured in an attack by unknown assailants during field work in Peshawar.
The World Health Organization — which has temporarily suspended its vaccination programs in that district — has repeatedly asked religious leaders to help put a stop to the killings, but Devex has learned that many have refused.