How do we close the gender gap in political participation in Pakistan?

Published on 13 June 2022

Eleven million fewer women than men voted in the 2018 Pakistan elections. A gender gap in political participation is common in many democracies around the world. To tackle this, many policy interventions focus on increasing participation through educational programmes providing information and civic skills. But these strategies assume that women can independently decide to participate. What happens in patriarchal settings where women’s choices and movements are mediated by male gatekeepers?

Research conducted by the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) in Pakistan for the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme (A4EA), now published in the American Political Science Review by Ali Cheema (Lahore University of Management Sciences and Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives), Sarah Khan (Yale University), Asad Liaqat (Independent Researcher), and Shandana Khan Mohmand (IDS), sought to examine the role of male gatekeeping in women’s political participation. Restrictions on women’s freedom of movement are common in many developing countries. IDEAS’ study in Lahore found that 60 per cent of surveyed adult women (compared with 16 per cent of adult men) reported having to seek permission to leave the house. Men in the study were generally supportive of women voting – 90 per cent of surveyed men and women in Lahore agreed it was appropriate for women to vote. However, their role as gatekeepers means they still control women’s ability to get out and vote.

Male gatekeeping extends to men’s control of household resources, including means of transport. Most households surveyed in the IDEAS study owned a motorbike, but women rarely use these independently and rely on male household members for their mobility. Added to this, street harassment and safety concerns in the urban context make walking out unaccompanied a high-risk activity for women. In this context, the IDEAS researchers argue that achieving short-term change in women’s voting turnout requires engagement with men.

In the light of this, IDEAS conducted a field experiment with 2,500 households in Lahore coinciding with the 2018 elections in Pakistan. The experiment aimed to test whether non-partisan canvassing could increase women’s turnout. Each household was randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups: T1: female canvasser canvassing the female household members only; T2: male canvasser canvassing the male household members only; T1+T2: female and male canvasser canvassing both female and male household members (separately); control group: no canvassing. The canvassing visit involved showing a five-minute video on the importance of women’s election participation, with a male relative shown in an enabling role. This was followed by practical information on how to cast a vote. To verify turnout, the IDEAS survey team returned to each household in the two days immediately after the election to look at the indelible ink marks that polling station officers leave on voters’ thumbs. These marks wear out faster on women’s thumbs than on men’s because of daily household chores, and therefore the need to complete the verification exercise with the full sample in just two days.

The study finds no effect on women’s turnout in households where only women were canvassed. However, households where only men were canvassed, and where both men and women were canvassed saw increases. For the T2 group (only men) there was an increase of 5.4 per cent in women’s turnout; for the T1+T2 group (both canvassed) this rose to 8 per cent. To put the magnitude of this result in perspective, Pakistan’s national gender gap in voting is 9.1 per cent. This clearly shows that engaging male gatekeepers can lead to short-term change in women voter turnout.

The researchers also explored the longer-term effects of the canvassing. Surveyors returned to the households two months after the experiment to give the men the opportunity of posting a publicly visible sticker on their house entrance. One sticker showed a generic message of support for democracy, and the other particular support for women’s role in democracy. Researchers found that men in the T1+T2 group, where both men and women were canvassed, were 6.2 per cent more likely to post the sticker supporting women’s role in democracy than men in the control group. In addition, households from the T1+T2 group also reported continued discussions around politics after the experiment ended.

The concern remains though, that women’s political participation is mediated through men and how this impacts their autonomy in terms of how they vote. The researchers explored this through the use of vignettes representing coercion, social pressure and autonomy. They did not find any significant changes in the women’s self-identification against these vignettes across any of the experimental groups.

The results demonstrate the potential for short-term change in women’s political participation by working through male gatekeepers in highly patriarchal contexts like Pakistan. However, the form of political participation – voting – is key. Similar efforts could work for encouraging women’s participation in activities that are similarly deemed appropriate, e.g. higher education. The researchers are less optimistic about the efficacy of this approach for increasing women’s participation in activities where existing attitudes towards their participation are more restrictive, e.g. standing as candidates for political office. This underlines the need for transformative change in the status quo of unequal gender relations in order for women to be truly free to engage autonomously and fully in the public sphere.


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