Woman voting at a polling station during Pakistan's national elections

Where are the women voters? Insights from Pakistan’s 2024 elections

Blog Inclusive Growth, Women's Economic Empowerment and Political Economy

A complex interplay of social, cultural, and economic factors have kept an estimated 3.5 million Pakistani women out of the voter rolls. A multifaceted approach that is sensitive to gender norms, leverages technology, reserves places for women electoral candidates, and nullifies electoral results when voter gender gap prevails will be needed to overcome this.

Women tend to vote at much lower rates than men across many developing countries. Most cross-national surveys find that men, compared to women, are more likely to vote. This disparity is notably conspicuous in Pakistan. While the collaborative efforts by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and other stakeholders reduced the overall gender gap on voter rolls between women and men from 12.4 million in 2018 to 9.9 million in 2024, women voter turnout remained at 43% compared to 52% for men.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, Pakistan’s widest gender gap remains in political empowerment where the country ranks 95th out of 146 countries. While India’s political empowerment gender gap is more than Pakistan’s (15% compared to 22%), it has shown remarkable progress on the electoral front. Indian women voters are now expected to surpass male voters by the general elections in 2029.

The low women voter turnout can be attributed to several elements including a complex interplay of social, cultural, and economic factors, often mirroring broader developmental challenges within the country. Women’s votes remain essential for building an inclusive and equitable democracy. The existing electoral gender disparity not only indicates that a significant segment of the population is being prevented from exercising their constitutionally mandated electoral rights but also raises concerns about the representativeness of their electoral views in the final election outcomes.

The impact of women’s votes

Women’s access to voting ensures their voices are heard in the democratic process and their perspectives are captured in government decisions. Women often prioritise issues such as healthcare, education, childcare, and family welfare and when they vote, they advocate for policies that address these issues. When more women vote, it can lead to growth in welfare and redistribution expenditures by the government. Women’s participation in the democratic process through their right to vote is fundamental to the functioning and legitimacy of democracy.

Yet at least 3.5 million eligible women still remain absent from Pakistan’s voter rolls. While voting is constitutionally guaranteed as a right for all adults in Pakistan, millions of women have been effectively prevented from exercising this right in previous elections. Especially in the country’s most conservative constituencies, there have been instances where political party officials, local elders, and other influential figures have collaborated to disseminate messages discouraging women from voting and, at times, have even physically obstructed their access to polling stations. Legal challenges to these practices have often faced delays in court adjudication. Many women do not have identity cards and are thus ineligible to vote. By registering these women as voters and potentially including their votes, electoral outcomes of more than a third of the national legislature could be impacted. An estimated 3.5 million women voters would translate into more than 13,000 voters on average in each of the 266 National Assembly constituencies. This number of votes exceeds the margin of victory in over 100 constituencies, implying that the missing women if registered as voters, can potentially alter the results in these seats.

Women voter turnout remains low

A total of 60.6 million voters - up by 5.8 million voters since the 2018 elections - participated in Pakistan's 12th general elections held this year. Approximately 47.6% of registered voters cast their ballots compared to 52.1% in 2018. While the overall voter turnout declined, in absolute numbers, more women voted in these elections compared to the previous ones. Almost 2.3 million more women turned out to vote in 2024 compared to 2018.

This was also the first time that Pakistan registered more women voters as compared to men in the lead up to the 2024 elections. Though a promising development, it didn’t automatically ensure higher women turnout at the polls. Women’s turnout remained 17.4 percentage points lower than that of men. Share of women voters decreased to 41% in 2024 from 47% in 2018, whereas men’s turnout increased from 56% to 58.7%.

Overall, women still comprise less than half the country’s registered voters. The set of voters who decided the outcome of these elections included 10.22 million more men than women. Lower female voter turnout has in fact persisted throughout (close to) 100 by-elections held since the last general elections in 2018. In these elections, in at least 12 constituencies, women voter turnout was 20% or less. 

The reasons for low women turn out are plenty such as sociocultural norms and barriers to mobility, challenges in obtaining ID cards, distances to polling stations among others.

How to improve women voter turnout?

What does research suggest?

The primary focus of most initiatives aimed at enhancing women's voting behaviour revolves around enhancing their access to necessary "resources" for participation such as information, motivation, civic abilities, and self-confidence. However, the effectiveness of such interventions varies, as evidenced by research findings ranging from favourable outcomes observed in rural Pakistan to negligible impacts in Ghana, and even adverse effects documented in a civic education campaign in Mali. On the other hand, IGC funded research in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan showed that a door-to-door political campaign by an incumbent politician targeting women did not affect women turnout in the election.

With these interventions, there is an implicit assumption that women hold the decision-making power regarding their participation in voting which may not hold true in patriarchal societies where men often serve as "gatekeepers" within households. Due to constraints on mobility, women still rely on men for transportation and accompaniment to access polling stations. In such environments, interventions aimed at enhancing women's participation may need to engage these male gatekeepers. This research specifically tests whether barriers to women's voting originate from women themselves or from the men within their households. This research finds that targeting men is critical to improving women’s voter turnout.

Research in Pakistan has also found that women's propensity to participate in voting diminishes when their mobility is restricted due to a lack of male accompaniment or when they anticipate traveling along routes predominantly frequented by men. Moreover, there is limited evidence explaining substantial subnational variation in turnout. Ongoing IGC research is attempting to understand this more using descriptive and field data.

Overall researchers can conduct evaluations to assess effectiveness of existing policies and interventions targeting women's voter turnout such as women-friendly polling stations or voter education campaigns. Research can also help identify gaps in existing policies and legal frameworks related to women's political participation. By analysing laws, regulations, and institutional practices, researchers can identify areas where policy reforms are needed to better support women's inclusion in the electoral process. Understanding sociocultural dynamics can inform the development of culturally sensitive policies and communication strategies to engage women voters effectively. Research can contribute to improving data collection methods and analytical tools for monitoring women's voter turnout and assessing gender disparities in political participation. This may involve developing gender-disaggregated data sets, refining survey instruments, or adopting innovative data analysis techniques.

What steps has Pakistan taken?

During the 2013 general elections, the Election Commission initiated a pilot project to separately count the votes cast by women. This measure aimed to offer a more detailed assessment of women voters' turnout across various levels: from polling stations to constituencies, provinces, and the nation as a whole. Subsequently, this became standard practice during the 2018 and subsequent elections. The observation of lower women voter turnout in many constituencies heightened awareness regarding the electoral gender gap. Over the years, the gender gap in registered voters gradually started coming down.

To promote higher participation of women voters, the state implemented Section 9 of the Elections Act, 2017 which stipulates that if the turnout of women voters falls below 10% of the total votes cast in a constituency, the Election Commission has authority to infer that women voters may have faced obstacles in exercising their voting rights. Consequently, the ECP is empowered to invalidate polling at specific polling stations or declare the election results void for the entire constituency but none of the national or provincial assemblies’ constituencies recorded a female voter turnout that was less than 10% of the total polled votes. However, ECP measures female voter turnout as proportion of the votes casted rather than of the total women registered votes. The low female voter turnout could very well stem from the lower share of women’s registered votes compared to men.

Policy direction and some low hanging fruits

Improving female voter turnout in Pakistan is crucial for a more inclusive and representative democracy. Here are some low-hanging fruit strategies that can help enhance women’s participation in elections:

Recognising that men often act as gatekeepers within households, and engaging them as allies in initiatives to encourage women's participation emerges as a crucial strategy. Educating men about the importance of women's voices in electoral outcomes and facilitating women's access to polling stations through their support can potentially lead to positive changes.

Recent reforms empowering the Election Commission to nullify results in constituencies with a significant gender gap in electoral turnout represent a step in the right direction. However, further efforts are needed to incentivise political parties and families to ensure compliance with these provisions and encourage more women to cast their votes.

Mandating gender quotas for political party nominations and enforcing them rigorously can also contribute to enhancing women's engagement in the electoral process and fostering greater representation.

Technology can play a pivotal role in enhancing women’s participation in elections. Websites, social media platforms, and mobile apps, can provide accessible information and reminders about elections, registration deadlines, and polling days, and facilitate women's participation.       

Ultimately, addressing the root causes of low women's voter turnout requires a multifaceted approach.