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I. Summary

“They called me on my mobile phone, saying, ‘You are doing things you should not.  We will kill you.  We will kill you as an example to other women.’”
─Women’s rights activist investigating takeover of a women’s development center by local strongmen, Afghanistan, September 13, 2004

When a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, one of the justifications for the war was that it would liberate women from the misogynistic rule of the Taliban.  Three years later, on the eve of the country’s first-ever national presidential elections on October 9, 2004, there have been notable improvements for women and girls.  More than one million girls are enrolled in school, the new Constitution contains guarantees for women’s equal rights, and according to official figures, approximately 40 percent of all registered voters are women.

These improvements mask a more depressing reality.  Continuing religious and cultural conservatism, and a dangerous security environment, mean that women still struggle to participate in the country’s evolving political institutions. Regional military factions and religious conservative leaders, as well as the Taliban and other insurgent forces, are limiting Afghan women’s participation in society through death threats, harassment, and physical attacks.  They threaten women active as government officials, journalists, potential political candidates, and humanitarian aid workers simply because they are women, and because they advocate for women’s human rights. 

In this respect, warlords, religious conservatives, and the Taliban often share a similar agenda.  The Taliban presided over one of the most hostile regimes to women in modern history, yet the regional and local warlords that the U.S.-led coalition assisted to power often have similar views about the role of women. Whatever the motives or aspirations of the international community, these men did not fight the Taliban over women’s rights. Because many of these warlords have been considered key allies in the continuing armed conflict with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the United States and other coalition governments have not made the warlords’ treatment of women a high priority.

In most of Afghanistan, warlords continue to operate with impunity, and the rule of the gun is more of a reality than the rule of law.1 Violence, intimidation, and extortion are rife.  Many Afghans live in fear. 

Women suffer disproportionately under these conditions.  As previous Human Rights Watch reports have shown, in many parts of the country, some parents report that they are not sending their teenage daughters to school because it is not safe enough for them to walk to school.  Women who travel outside alone often continue to face harassment.  Women remain at risk for targeted sexual violence.

Intimidation has caused some women’s development projects to suspend or cancel their activities.  When warlords or the Taliban attack staff of a women’s rights non-governmental organization (NGO) or the office of a development project targeting women, they affect the provision of basic services and opportunities to dozens and sometimes hundreds of women. With large areas of the country off limits to the majority of aid programs because of poor security conditions, change for women and girls will remain confined to Kabul and other major urban centers.

Women’s rights activists and journalists who have been outspoken on women’s rights issues, such as human trafficking or violence against women, have reported death threats, visits to their homes by gunmen, and dismissals from their jobs or other obstructions of their work. Often, expecting retaliation from armed political factions or religious conservatives, women’s rights activists and women journalists refrain from directly criticizing warlords or discussing topics that could be perceived as challenging women’s rights under Islamic law, such as divorce.

The resulting atmosphere of fear and insecurity endangers women’s full participation in the presidential elections and parliamentary and local elections scheduled for 2005.

According to official tallies, 41 percent of the 10.5 million Afghans registered to vote in the October 9 election are women. Election officials and NGOs who prioritized the registration of women deserve praise for their efforts.  However, these numbers must be approached with caution.  The Taliban and other insurgent forces in provinces along the Pakistan-Afghan border continue to threaten the election process and to intimidate Afghan women who seek to be part of it. In some southern provinces, women comprise less than 10 percent of registered voters.

Furthermore, many election officials in Kabul privately concede that the overall numbers are inflated by multiple registrations, caused in part by many voters’ belief that registration might be linked to humanitarian assistance. There are also reports that husbands allowed their wives to register on the premise that they would in effect then have two votes, as they could instruct their wives how to vote.  And an Asia Foundation survey found that almost one out of every four men in the south will forbid their wives to vote. 

Due to inadequate logistical arrangements and general security fears, it is unclear just how many women will be able to vote freely on election day.  Preparations for the election are behind schedule. In the last two weeks before election day, tens of thousands of poll workers had yet to be hired, including critical women staff. Election officials are now resorting to assigning elderly men, including mullahs and other respected local elders, to work at some women’s voting sites, on the theory that sensitivities about women mingling with men will be assuaged.  Given those same sensitivities, the shortfall in female poll workers may prevent some women from voting at all. 

These problems could be worse in the parliamentary and local elections scheduled for next year, in many ways a more significant test of Afghan women’s ability to exercise their political rights. The new Afghan constitution guarantees that approximately a quarter of all seats will be reserved for women. The parliamentary and local elections will carry a greater risk of violence, vote-buying, and intimidation as military factions, political parties, and local leaders jockey to maintain and consolidate control over districts and provinces.

Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of potential women candidates.  Many expected powerful political parties to front women candidates who will not be able to participate independently or equally. Most women said they expected to face threats and harassment from regional warlords and their supporters if they run for parliament. These same warlords have blocked women’s political participation consistently in the past, for example, in the Emergency and Constitutional Loya Jirgas (grand councils).

With so much promised to women who faced so much hardship and discrimination under the Taliban (and previous governments), there is a widespread feeling of missed opportunity and disillusionment about the commitment of both Afghanistan’s leaders and the international community to women’s human rights.  Much more could have been accomplished over the past three years. 

Many women’s rights activists identified addressing the overall security environment and disarmament of armed factions as the most significant step that the Afghan government and international actors can take to ensure that they are able to participate in political processes, advocate freely for women’s rights, and even vote without fear of retaliation and violence.  Almost all of the women whom Human Rights Watch interviewed expressed deep disappointment in the disarmament process, the continued political dominance of warlords, and the lack of accountability for abuses.  So long as armed factions retain control, women must risk their safety to participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and to assert their political rights. 

Human Rights Watch urges the Afghan government, international security forces, and donor countries to commit themselves to making women’s human rights and women’s security one of their top priorities. In 2001, after the fall of the Taliban, improving the rights of Afghan women was at the top of the international agenda; in 2004, despite many well-intentioned programs for women, women’s human rights appears to be more of an afterthought. In a country where women and girls are still recovering from decades of war and the brutal rule of the Taliban, an environment conducive to women’s rights activists and women’s development projects is essential.

The Afghan government and international actors must fulfill the promise of disarmament and they must marginalize and hold accountable human rights abusers for their actions.  If these conditions are not met, the participation of women is in danger of being largely symbolic.

The United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other international actors should take immediate and decisive steps to fulfill their commitments to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan.  They must expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and give it and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) a clear mandate to disarm militias and protect human rights. The United Nations and Afghan government, with donor support, should begin civic education and training programs for the 2005 elections, prioritizing outreach to women in the provinces.

A full set of recommendations can be found at the end of the report.

Note on Methodology

This report is based on over one hundred interviews with women NGO activists, journalists, government officials, doctors, teachers, U.N. workers, and international donors in August and September 2004. We conducted interviews with women from a wide range of ethnic groups, political affiliations, and regions, including in-person interviews in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif, and phone interviews with individuals in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat, Sar-e Pol, Ghazni, Paktika, Kapisa, and Wardak. Although some women courageously offered permission for us to publish their names, many expressed great fear about retaliation for sharing their experiences with us. Because of the relatively few numbers of politically active women in each province and the very real threat of retaliation if their identities become known, we have kept their names, and at times their locations, confidential. Initials used in the footnotes do not correspond to actual names.

[1] Human Rights Watch, The Rule of the Gun, Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004), available at

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