May 07 2013

Guardian: Pakistan’s women face battle for the right to vote

Fears over the safety of women voting in next week’s elections in Pakistan are rising after letters have been circulated in regions of the country warning men not to allow their wives, sisters and daughters out to the polling stations.

In an increasingly fraught and violent runup to the 11 May vote, leaflets are appearing stating that it is “un-Islamic” for women to participate in democracy.

Now a group of young female activists are planning to challenge what they call the government’s inability to protect women’s right to vote by organising their own protection teams at individual polling stations in tense and volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the four provinces of Pakistan, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province.

In what is being called Pakistan’s youth election – almost a third of the electorate is between 18 and 29 – a growing tide of young women are determined to overcome cultural and political obstacles to make their voices heard.

Saba Ismail, 23-year-old founder and director of Aware Girls, a peace group for and led by young women to train girls in leadership skills, said they already planned to monitor 30 polling stations with volunteers who would support women who came out to vote and hoped to reach many more.

Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old activist for girl’s educational rights who became an international figure after being shot and badly injured in a Taliban assassination attempt last October, was one of those trained by Ismail’s group.

“Malala is not the only one who has been so brave, but she is a hero to all of us now,” Ismail said. “Such a strong young woman and a true role model, I was very impressed by her. Many women and girls will feel empowered by Malala to come out and vote. It has been made very clear that women in Pakistan should not vote and those in rural areas are the most vulnerable, so we will be putting volunteers out to try and help women feel they can come out on this important day.

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