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July '06: Elected but still barred


Individualland spotlight is a monthly monitor on political affairs printed on the 17th of every month by individualland.com. Individualland would welcome reproduction & dissemination of the contents of this report after proper acknowledgment.

Elected but still barred
(July 2006)
Readers would recall that Individualland and the mainstream media last year highlighted some areas of the country where women were not allowed to contest in the local elections. One such area was Upper Dir in the North West Frontier Province. They were only allowed to do so after hectic efforts by the government. For it's July individu-spotlight, Individualland wanted to inquire as how are the women who filed their nomination papers amidst the media glare and the Federal Government's blessings, faring? How has their performance been in the District Assembly? What has been their experience now that the media and NGOs attention has moved away?

This time last year the country was caught up in local elections fever. The Election Commission of Pakistan had announced the election schedule end of June and groups were busy in canvassing. The thirty three percent reservations of women seats at the local level had been reduced. In 2000, the number of reserved seats for women were 33% which had been a long standing demand of women's groups in Pakistan. Women did contest and there were even two women elected as District Nazims or Mayors. However, there were a number of women who contested only on paper. They never even left their houses as canvassing was done by their male relatives. Once elected, a number of the women did not attend the sessions. This led to a decrease in the number of women reserved seats in 2005.This decision to reduce women seats was protested hotly by various civil society organizations. However, in spite of this reduction a number of women were elected to the district assemblies.

Readers would recall that Individualland and the mainstream media highlighted some areas of the country where women were not allowed to contest. One such area was Upper Dir. During the local bodies polls held in August last year, a Jirga imposed a ban on women to file their nomination papers. After hectic efforts of then adviser to the prime minister on women development, Nilofar Bakhtiar, women in Dir filed their papers and some 87 of them were elected to the union councils. However, none of the 69,201 registered female voters in the district were allowed to cast vote in the election. The same situation was also observed in the 2002 general elections.

To ensure that the women of Dir area got their political rights, the then Women Affairs Advisor, Ms. Nelofer Bakhtayar was dispatched to the area where she `negotiated" with the tribal jirga to allow women to contest. As cameras looked on, the women candidates in the presence of the Advisor filed their nomination papers. This was regarded as a triumph of the government and it was declared that the government takes its gender credentials very seriously. The barring of women from contesting or casting their votes was seriously taken notice of and it was also declared that if there is evidence that in an area women 's political rights have been violated, the elections will be declared null and void.

This was last year. Next month a year would be completed since the incident. After the Advisor has changed portfolios, after the cameras have shifted to other newsworthy locations , what has been the fate of the women councilors of Upper Dir in the North West Frontier Province? Individualland wanted to inquire as how are the women who filed their nomination papers amidst the media glare and the Federal Government's blessings, faring? How has their performance been in the District Assembly? What has been their experience now that the media and NGOs attention has moved away? The truth is unfortunately, not very pleasant.

Barred from filing nomination papers to contest the local bodies' elections last year, now the elected women councilors of Upper Dir are being barred from attending their respective councils meetings and their non-elected male relatives attend the meetings on their behalf. This practice is supported and encouraged by the leaders of District, Tehsil and Union Councils, thus depriving women of their political rights. Most of the women councilors are being represented by their male family members such as husbands, sons and brothers. The male members regularly attend the District Assembly sessions on their behalf, sign for them, speak for them, vote for them and of course needless to say also collect their honorariums. In other words, in Upper Dir we have women representatives on the reserved seats that in their turn are being represented by their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. So for all practical purposes, the women reserved seats are being occupied by men in Upper Dir. This leads one to an interesting question. Do these pseudo female representatives meet the minimum requirements of being a District Assembly member? If so, than why didn't they contest themselves? Was it because they did not qualify? Or is it a shrewd political strategy on the part of the male members as women reserved seats are easier? Get the woman elected on the women reserved seat and than make her sit at home. Very shrewd.

This decision to have the women representatives be represented by their male family members is actually a consensus decision. According to Individualland's researchers, the Nazim and the Councilors have formed a formal alliance to keep the women out. But in the interests of being gender sensitive ala Dir style the women of the area are also represented by the pseudo males. In fact, not only have the Nazims and councilors formed an alliance to keep women councilors out of their respective councils, but the responsible government officials and agencies have also not reported the illegal practice to the Election Commission, let alone taking any action. The conveners of all councils are part of this game, as they are not preventing the non-elected male representatives of women councilors from entering the councils, signing the roll and taking part in discussions. Interestingly, the individuals are also well aware of the illegal nature of this act. Speaking to a local reporter one of the Union Councils councilor has himself admitted that the action is illegal but also maintained that women cannot sit in the Assembly and all as `` serious debate takes place in the sessions . " The gentleman also declared that if any women councilor was interested in the session proceedings, she can very well ask her male family member to bring her up to speed.

There are nine women councilors in district council, six in Tehsil council Dir and three in town council Wari. Only two women councilors are personally attending the DC meetings, while none in Tehsil councils of Dir and Wari are allowed to attend the meetings. "We advise them not to attend the meetings, ensuring them they will be marked present in the roll," confided an official, requesting not to be named according to a local report.

When contacted by Individualland's researchers the Assistant Election Commissioner Dir Upper, Mr. Khushhal Khan said that EC could not take suo moto action, as the matter had not been reported by any council. Referring to the rule, he said member of any council would be disqualified if he/she did not attend three consecutive sessions without any reason. He said the women councilors not attending their sessions could be disqualified once their absence was reported to the EC.

Upper Dir is just one district which Individualland 's researchers have pointed out. The question that we are afraid to ask is : how many other Upper Dir's are there around the country where women enjoy political rights only on paper?

 

 

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