Jul 24, 2015

Gender-gap in electoral roll and some additional questions

A credible electoral roll is a prerequisite for free and fair elections, and the allegation of 1.25 crore fake voters in our electoral roll was one of the reasons for not holding the ninth parliament elections on time. The matter eventually landed in the Supreme Court, and based on the Court's direction, an electoral roll with photographs was prepared in 2008 by the Election Commission, headed by Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda. The electoral roll thus prepared was audited by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which found it to be 99 percent accurate.

As per the 2008 electoral roll, we had a total voter count of 8,10,58,698, of which female voters were 4,12,36,149 and male voters were 3,98,22,549. Thus, there were 14,13,600 more female voters than male voters, culminating in a +1.74 percent gender-gap.

The total number of voters increased to 9,19,80,531 after a revision in 2013 by the EC, headed by Kazi Rakibuddin. In the revised roll, female voters were 4,58,44,566 while there were 4,61,35,965 male voters. Thus, in the revised roll, the number of male voters exceeded female voters by 2,91,399 and the gender-gap was -0.32 percent.

The EC carried out its next revision of the electoral roll during May to November of 2014 and published a draft supplementary list on January 2, 2015, with a deadline of January 22 for correction. According to the draft supplementary list, the new voters were over fifty lakh and gender-gap was -11.67 percent.

On February 1, 2015, the EC published a summary of the revision on its website. According to the summary, the total number of voters, after the correction, increased to 9,61,98,652, of which 4,77,47,010 were female and 4,84,51,642 were male. Thus, as per the latest revision, there were 7,04,632 more men voting than women, producing a gender-gap of -0.74 percent.

According to the published summary, by November 2014, the new voters increased by 46,95,650, of which there were 20,66,144 women voters and 26,29,506 men voters. Thus, among new voters, there were 5,63,362 more male voter than female voters, resulting in a -12 percent gender gap.

To fully realise the seriousness of the gender-gap in our latest electoral roll, one needs to disaggregate it to the district level. Unfortunately, the EC has not published the final electoral roll for each district, and the formal and informal efforts to receive the information from the Commission were unsuccessful. However, the draft supplementary list published by the EC on January 1 shows the number of new voters, both female and male, for each district, from which we can see the extent of the disaggregated gender-gap.

As per the draft supplementary list, of the 64 districts, eight had gender-gap of lower than 5 percent; 28 had between 5-10 percent; nine had between 10-15 percent; 11 had between 15-20 percent; four had between 20-25 percent; two had between 25-30 percent, one had between 30-35 percent; and another had 35-40 percent.

The highest gender-gap was -35.3 percent in Feni. It was followed by Laxmipur with -30.82 percent, Noakhali with -26.44 percent, Chandpur with -25.72 percent, Comilla with -23.4 percent, Cox's Bazar with -22.58 percent, and Bhola with -20.84 percent.

The lowest gender-gap was -2.1 percent in Dhaka. It was followed by Khulna with -2.64 percent, Gaibandha with -2.92 percent, Rangpur with -4.02 percent, Sherpur with -4.08 percent, Bogra with -4.26 percent, Panchagar with -4.42 percent, and Khagrachari with -4.54 percent.

From the information above, we see no discernible pattern in the gender-gap. Only greater Noakhali and two districts of greater Comilla show high rates of gender-gap. We deserve an explanation from the EC on the reasons behind the high rates of gender-gap, which disenfranchised a large number of women voters throughout the country.

Another problem with our electoral roll is that the observed gender-gap, especially among new voters is inconsistent with the prevailing sex ratio in our population. According to the 2011 census, Bangladesh's sex ratio is 100.3, that is, the number of men and women in our country is almost the same. Thus, there is no justification for the high gender-gap among our new voters.

Another serious problem with the revised electoral roll is that the rate of increase in voters is not consistent with the rate of increase in our population. During the last six years, the average yearly rate of increase of voters was 3.11 percent. Those who became voters for the first time last year were born 18 years ago, when the rate of increase of population was less than 1.8 percent. Such inconsistency is bound to raise questions about the authenticity of our latest electoral roll.

In fact, the media has already raised serious questions about the accuracy of the revised electoral roll. For example, a report in Jugantor (January 26, 2015), stated that “the enumerators did not go to many houses. Some of them collected the information from influential persons and their acquaintances in the neighbourhood. Many aspiring voters of the capital city, districts and Upazilas did not see the enumerators. Many enumerators paid no attention to the legal requirement of their going from house to house for collecting information. In addition, there was not enough publicity about the revision of the electoral roll.” Incidentally, no enumerator visited this author's house during the revision.

To conclude, the EC is a constitutional body which has the responsibility of strengthening our democratic process by holding free and fair elections. To this end, Article 118 of our constitution assigns four specific responsibilities to the Commission, including the preparation of an electoral roll for parliament elections. The Commission has also been given almost unlimited powers to faithfully discharge its responsibilities. However, it is not only failing to do its job, it is also getting embroiled in one controversy after another because of its partisan actions. Controversies could not be avoided even in revision of the electoral roll, which is bound to be an issue in our next election. It is therefore imperative that a third-party audit of our electoral roll is initiated immediately to establish its accuracy so that necessary corrections can be made on time.

Published in The Daily Star, July 12, 2015

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