My Voice Counts: Women at Iraq's Electoral Commission
Casting a vote at the ballot box is among the most important gestures that a citizen of voting age can make in a democratic country. When working on preparations for Iraq's April 2013 provincial council elections, preparations are going well at the Independent High Electoral Commission and the electoral schedule is being kept. The data entry is finalized and the voter lists updated. Now the eyes of Iraqis will be turning towards the upcoming electoral campaign, which will start in March.
- The Electoral Commission’s Electoral Media and Public Outreach Department is another example of women making their mark in the electoral body.
- Various communities are encouraged to vote through TV advertisements, calendars, and booklets featuring voters from target groups. TV spots support voter registration across 24 satellite stations.
During a recent visit to the Electoral Commission, a UNAMI delegation led by SRSG Martin Kobler was encouraged to see efforts to include more women in the political process. While the UN team was going around the Electoral Commission’s Data Entry Centre (DEC), for example, they could not miss the large number of women, busily working on the computers. Indeed, “with 38 percent women, the DEC is one of the most gender-balanced sections in IHEC,” the head of the International Electoral Assistance Team, Mr. Jose Maria Aranaz confirmed. SRSG Kobler also praised the increasing presence of women in the political arena, underlining that 26.5 percent of the candidates in the governorate council elections are women.
The Electoral Commission’s Electoral Media and Public Outreach Department is another example of women making their mark in the electoral body. Headed by Ms. Nawal Hussein Khaled, the section is responsible for managing production of the full spectrum of electoral media: TV/radio spots, print ads, posters, billboards, brochures, calendars and related material framing the main electoral messages.
Mr. David Aasen, UNDP's Electoral Media Specialist, interviewed her to find out more about this important function.
UNDP: How did you get started at the Electoral Commission?
Nawal Hussein: I applied when the electoral organization was first established in 2004. I had completed my Master’s degree and had experience in the Ministry of Planning and in television. I am now completing a PhD in fine arts, with a focus on graphics. There was a good match between my experience and electoral work. I have worked in several departments, but since 2006 I have been in Public Outreach. Last year I was appointed Chief of the Electoral Media Section. Now, of course, we are fully engaged in the Governorate Council Elections.
UNDP: What does Electoral Media do?
NH: This Section establishes and implements the electoral media plans—for the National Office and for each of the Governorate Electoral Offices (GEOs). We oversee the production of TV/radio spots based on the key messages we provide, and coordinate with the Graphics Unit to design and print the materials.
These are the booklets, posters, banners distributed in the meetings with voters and displayed nationwide during each phase of the campaigns. The Electoral Commission has just completed the Voter Registration Update stage of the Governorate Council Elections. The next phase will focus on the concept of ‘get out the vote’, which is part of the polling phase. We also organize the production of promotional materials and place official notices of procedures, like registration of candidates, in the press.
UNDP: How have electoral media campaigns changed since the first elections of the political transition?
NH: In the first elections, the UN was responsible for the whole media campaign. We have been trained by the UN and now we’re doing the job. The campaign is being carried out by Iraqi hands.
We learn from our mistakes in each campaign and take measures to avoid them in the future. Some activities can be a challenge but we adapt to meet the needs of the GEOs. We can call on the UN for advice. They help us to accelerate certain actions; like UNDP placing banners on Yahoo! sites for this campaign. (The website banners, illustrated by ‘Abu Mutar’ (Father of Rain), a popular cartoon character created by the Electoral Commission artists, appear in Yahoo! mail accounts in Iraq. Abu Mutar’s captions clarify electoral information.)
DA: We know that the media plan identifies “target groups” to reach during this campaign: first-time or young voters and the community of people living with disabilities. How are you reaching these groups?
NH: We have designed TV advertisements, calendars, booklets which all feature voters from these groups. Our TV spots to support voter registration ran on 24 satellite stations. Our Public Outreach has organized meetings for students and civil society to inform target groups. In some GEOs they held sports events and poetry events to involve young people.
UNDP: We noticed that your new TV spots and electoral graphics had a clean, contemporary look. There were images of youth and voters living with disabilities.
NH: If we’re doing a good job reaching all Iraqi voters in the mass media, we’ll reach these groups with our main messages: required documentation, where to vote, motivation, and how to cast your ballot. If we reach women in the campaign they will be the first in line to vote.
UNDP: Going into this election, we note that more than 25 percent of the Governorate Council candidates – 2,210 – are women. At IHEC, female professionals are managing Sections, are on the Board of Commissioners and have launched a Gender Task Force. These are positive steps; what do you think needs to be done to promote women’s participation in the democratic process?
NH: I think that women in government need to be empowered and have a real team supporting them. If women in the Council of Representatives were seen by the media going down to the street to deal with the real problems of Iraqi women and men, that would have an impact. Deeds are stronger than words. They need to defend the rights of Iraqi women who are suffering from violence, family and societal pressures.
We need to undertake special outreach efforts to female university students using social media. We had an ‘Appeal to Iraqi Youth’ to register to vote on Facebook which was popular.
(The Electoral Commission is using its website at www.ihec.iq, Call Centre #5777, Facebook and YouTube to update voters.)
UNDP: How can students emulate your career path?
NH: Electoral procedures aren’t taught at the university, only political science. Internship programmes for Iraqi students interested in democratic development aren’t well organized yet. Even so, I would encourage qualified graduates to get involved and apply to the Electoral Commission if they’re interested.
UNDP: What would you like to try in the future?
NH: The University has asked me several times to return as a lecturer. But I feel this electoral institution is my home, I want to keep doing this work for the Iraqi voters.