Despite a higher number of women in the latest census, the voter list presents a surprising gender disparity.
In a country with a population of approximately 170 million, the number of registered voters has exceeded 120 million.
There are 1.63 million more women than men in the census, but men outnumber women on the final voter list by 1.74 million.
According to analysts, due to the larger female population, the number of female voters should be higher. However, several factors such as limited door-to-door campaigning, obstacles, and a lack of interest or opportunities, especially in remote areas, can lead to a disproportionate representation of women on the final voter list.
Since the introduction of the photo-based voter list, the number of male and female voters has been nearly equal. However, over the last 15 years, female voter turnout has declined. To address this issue, local female representatives, particularly those from the reserved constituencies of districts, upazilas, cities, municipalities, and union councils, have been enlisted to encourage and support women's participation in the voting process.
Fauzia Moslem, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a voluntary organisation focused on women's rights, rejects the notion that women's disinterest is the reason for the gender imbalance in the voter list.
If women are underrepresented in the voter count despite outnumbering men in Bangladesh’s demography, it raises concerns, Fauzia said. She has been advocating for extensive campaigning to increase voter participation. Although women have shown interest in voting, she believes that various obstacles prevent many from exercising their right to vote, and it is the responsibility of the Election Commission to address these issues.
Fauzia has called for a series of initiatives throughout the year to encourage voters and reduce the gap. She has also urged political parties and other sectors to make commitments to address the issue.
Fauzia also stressed increasing the number of polling booths in proportion to the number of voters and creating a "women-friendly" environment at polling stations.
Currently, there are approximately 120 million eligible voters in the country for the upcoming 12th parliamentary election.
Among them, 60.45 million are men, 58.75 million are women, and 837 are the third gender.
To empower women, a certain number of women should be present in all committees, and 10-20 percent of election nominations should be reserved for women, Fauzia said, referring to a meeting with Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal.
“We need to guarantee a conducive environment for women who are ordinary, from minority groups, or marginalised, so they can freely exercise their right to vote in elections based on their opinions.”
According to preliminary findings from the recent census, about 83.35 million women live in the country, compared to 81.71 million men. The population of the third gender stands at 12,629.
The exact number of people found in the final data from the latest government census released on Feb 6, is 169,828,911, up around 4.7 million from the initial data released on Jul 7 last year.
According to the 2011 census, the population of over 140 million had a greater number of men than women, with men comprising 72.11 million, while women accounted for 71.93 million.
The preparation of voter lists with photographs and national identity cards has been carried out with precision and positivity since its commencement in 2007-08, according to election observer and analyst Abdul Alim.
Nevertheless, he highlighted the necessity for comprehensive and efficient publicity to accompany the annual or periodic updates.
He believes that a higher percentage of women under the age of 17 in the population may be a factor in the low number of women on the voter list.
Mentioning his observation that women are generally "reluctant" to vote, Alim, however, said that there are many senior citizens who neither hold bank accounts nor avail themselves of national identity cards and are also reluctant to register as voters."
"Many people have a fear of chaos about the vote, there is a kind of distrust, and they are not even interested in being voters,” he added.
Alim, the former director of the Election Working Group, a platform of election observer organisations, urged the Election Commission to formulate a 'gender policy' to motivate women voters.
A gender desk should be opened during the polls, where women will get help, he said, adding that in the appointment of polling officers, a target will be set for what percentage of women will be there, while political parties will set targets for women in the process of nominating them.
“If everyone can ensure a suitable environment together, voters and candidates will be equal everywhere.”
The EC led by KM Nurul Huda had identified eight reasons for the low number of women voters.
Reluctance to collect birth certificates with government-fixed fees.
The reluctance of Hindu married women to register at their fathers’ homes.
The reluctance of unmarried women to become voters.
The failure of parents to provide national identity cards.
The remoteness of the registration centre,
Reluctance to take pictures on the religious pretext.
The unawareness of women in remote areas.
After the Awal-led commission took charge in 2022, the updating of the voter list started in the middle of the year. On Mar 2 this year, the CEC released the final list of voters.
Ashok Kumar Debnath, additional secretary of the Election Commission Secretariat, said, “Not only women, but we are also trying to make all eligible voters, both men and women, vote."
“Although there is no such thing as reluctance to be a voter, some superstitions remain in many areas. Everyone knows that women do not go to vote in an area of Chandpur. The EC takes major steps to overcome all kinds of obstacles.”
Women of Chandpur's Dakshin Rupsa Union do not vote for 'almost half a century' despite going to work outside the home. The fate of the union's public representatives depends on the male voters. Even women members of the reserved seats are elected by men only.
“The EC is committed to preparing an accurate voter list with the cooperation of all, including local public representatives. There are also strict measures to prevent false information and Rohingyas from becoming voters. Besides ensuring a smooth environment for all, special importance is given to the law and order meeting during the election to prevent issues of disturbance, violence, and intimidation of women voters,” Ashok said.
The contrast between the population and the voter list is 'statistical', he said.
“Data collectors go door-to-door to update the voter list. Efforts are underway to ensure that no one is left off the list.”
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi]