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Women face uphill task in polls

Islamabad, Aug. 10: Controversy surrounds the coming local elections in Pakistan with reports of discrimination against women coming from various parts of the country, especially the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) ruled by the six-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Ammal (MMA).

Over 226,000 candidates, including 57,000 women, have filed nomination papers to contest the polls slated for August 18 and 25 in 110 countrywide districts. The polls will be conducted in two phases.

President Pervez Musharraf had introduced the new system of local governments in August 2000 to ensure participation of the people from the grassroots level in all sections of the government.

However, reports of women being prohibited to contest the elections and to poll votes in several areas of NWFP have set off ripples across the country.

The situation prompted the official Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to issue fresh directives to the district managements throughout Pakistan asking them to take stern action against persons or groups involved in preventing women from contesting the election or voting.

“The ECP will not allow any one to stop women from participating in the polls,” a senior official said, adding that the commission will disqualify all those candidates found involved in discrimination against women.

However, despite the warning, four male contestants in northern cities of Mardan and Charsadda on Monday signed a deal to stop women in their respective areas from going to polls.

Already alarmed over the approval of the controversial Hasba or accountability bill by the NWFP legislature, leading human rights groups and political parties including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto drew the ECP’s attention towards the discrimination against women voters.

Though the Pakistan Supreme Court recently struck down some clauses of the bill, which were considered similar to the Taliban style of governance, it is generally believed the law will be used as a tool by clerics to gain “political space”. Some human rights activists also dubbed the law as “a good reflection of mullah-military” alliance.

According to the deal reportedly reached between the contesting candidates in Mardan and Charssada, women voters will be kept out of the local council elections schedule for August 18.

Mufti Gauhar Ali of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam of MMA secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman said on Monday that all four candidates had signed a written agreement not to allow women to vote.

He said the candidates had agreed that the agreement’s violators would be fined 500,000 rupees. He said the decision was made on the demands of the local people who wanted women to remain out of the election process.

In another scary incident reported in Sikandarey Purdilabad Union Council, Mardan district, the contesting candidates swore on the Quran to ban women from taking part in the election process.

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