The monitors, who range in age from 12 to 27, say they are facing the threat of violence and cultural bias against women in their conservative province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some say they have faced resistance even from their families.
“My father didn’t want me to do it, but I want to bring a change to Pakistan,” said Surriya Khan, 20, a college student. “Somebody has to.”
She is one of dozens of women working for gender equality in this Muslim-majority nation through Aware Girls, a group founded 10 years ago and supported by various international donors, human rights groups and health advocates.
The “girls” will stake out women-only polling stations Saturday. In recent training sessions, they have been taught to recognize violations of campaign laws and efforts to intimidate voters or tamper with ballots.
“They are young women doing their duty to their country,” said the group’s chairperson, Gulalai Ismail. “They are risking their lives.”
The girls and women are energetic and full of determination, and many of them say they share the same sentiment: hope. They bring up the word again and again, in a way that’s reminiscent of President Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign.
For them, many voting in their first election, democracy is now a given. Some came of age during a democratically elected government’s tenure, rather than a military strongman’s rule, and became adults as Pakistan’s Parliament completed a full five-year term for the first time. They say they expect this democratic transfer of power to become Pakistan’s new normal.
“We are happy and very hopeful because democracy is evolving in Pakistan, and people are building allegiance to their country,” Ismail said.
But threats are being made against the group. Near the city of Mardan, some men opposed to female voters have formed a group called “Aware Muslims,” which has distributed images of Ismail’s Facebook posts in an effort to spread their anti-women message.
“Our people cannot even digest the idea that a woman can be a decision-maker within the family, so they don’t want a woman to be a decision-maker in the state,” Ismail said.
Pakistan provides separate polling places for women, who account for 37 million registered voters out of a 180 million population. There are 48 million men registered to vote in the election.
In 2008, when the most recent national election was held, no women turned out at 564 of 28,800 polling stations. Some women’s polling stations were torched, Ismail said.