<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

IV. Obstacles to Women's Participation in the Presidential Election

We have to use this opportunity—it is men’s dream that women won’t participate because of security. It is our aim that women will participate.
—Women’s rights activist, Kabul, August 28, 2004

Encouragingly high numbers of Afghan women have registered to vote in many parts of the country. At the same time, security threats created by regional warlords or by attacks from Taliban and other insurgent forces have marred the process, resulting in the loss of life, an atmosphere of fear, and extremely low female voter registration rates in the south. 70 Continued threats and insecurity, in combination with logistical and funding failures, may seriously compromise women’s ability to vote on October 9.

The world has monitored Afghan women’s participation in the presidential election not only as a measure of whether they can vote, but to assess improvements in women’s ability to move freely and assert other fundamental human rights. UNAMA, the JEMB, international donors, and NGOs have taken many positive steps to encourage female voter registration, including civic education programs, hiring female election workers, permitting women to obtain voter registration cards without photographs, and providing regularly updated registration figures disaggregated by gender. These efforts helped generate commendable results: according to official tallies, 41 percent of all registered voters in the country are women.

Upon closer examination, however, the picture is less rosy. In some places, multiple registrations have likely significantly inflated voter registration figures; in others, women have faced violence and intimidation during the registration process and few have registered.71 In one of the most deadly examples, on June 25, 2004, a bomb targeting a bus full of female election workers near the eastern city of Jalalabad killed three and injured twelve.72

Women who spearheaded voter registration drives confronted resistance and threats from local factions and from the Taliban and other insurgent forces.73 One NGO that had focused on registering women voters in Wardak reported that, “women avoided taking voter registration cards. They were not willing to get voter registration cards, because they were scared by warlords.”74 Although election workers and NGOs reported that many local commanders and mullahs supported registration of women, instances of intimidation were not uncommon. In Laghman province, U.N. officials discovered that commanders were pushing mullahs to issue directives preventing women from registering to vote.75

Poor security conditions, in part due to attacks from the Taliban and other insurgent forces, led to intermittent suspension and curtailment of civic education programs and voter registration efforts, with a particularly negative impact on women.76 Attacks on election workers and aid workers throughout 2004 exacerbated the difficulties in recruiting and retaining women to work as civic educators or to register women. A woman civic educator told Human Rights Watch, “There are a lot of security problems. When we sent civic educators to the districts, there was no one to protect us and we were afraid.”77 One female election worker from Kandahar said, “Because we don’t have enough women teams, a lot of women can’t register even if they want to.”78 In some areas, fear of attacks prevented mobile registration teams from going door-to-door, a critical method for reaching out to women in rural or conservative areas. All these factors contributed to appallingly low female registration rates in the south: 9 percent of registered voters in Uruzgan province, 10 percent in Zabul province, and 16 percent in Helmand province.79

Several factors threaten to obstruct Afghan women’s ability to vote on election day, including fear of violence and inadequate logistical arrangements. A recent Human Rights Watch report analyzes how militarized political factions are undermining legitimate political processes and threatening to disrupt the elections.80 The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), both of which had planned to send large election observation teams, decided to send only small support teams to Afghanistan, as it considered the conditions too dangerous for its workers.

To facilitate women’s participation, election officials planned separate polling booths for men and women at each polling station. However, just two weeks before election day, tens of thousands of poll workers had yet to be hired, including critical female staff. Many stations will be understaffed, and elderly men, including mullahs and other respected local elders, will be used to meet the shortfall in female workers.81 These shortcomings will likely negatively impact women’s voter participation.

Human Rights Watch interviewed several women activists who underlined the constraints that may prevent women from voting freely and independently. One woman who has spent several months organizing election awareness workshops for women in western provinces. She told us:

I have 200-500 women in each gathering, [their main concern] is they are afraid of warlords. They are afraid they will be killed if they don’t give their votes to them. “If warlords are standing, how are we going to vote?” There were so many questions like this. We instruct them to say to the warlords, “we will vote for you,” but to do something else at the ballot box.82

A recent survey by the Asia Foundation found that 87 percent of Afghans said that women would need to get permission from their husband or the head of the family to vote. Eighteen percent of men surveyed said they would not let their wives vote at all, and in the south, almost one out of every four men surveyed felt this way.83 One women’s rights activist noted that, “Only a few women will be able to exercise their own choice, the educated ones. [Most women say] we should obey our husbands, and if we go against them, it will be a sin.”84  Another election worker said she knew women who would not be able to vote because their families will not allow them. She said, “Some of the women said to the [election] workers, ‘you gave us cards, but we are not sure if our families will let us go.’”85

Obstacles to women’s equal participation in the presidential election are not confined to women voters, but extend to the lone female presidential candidate, Massouda Jalal. In March 2004, Habibullah Habib, the dean of Balkh University, prevented Jalal from speaking at the university. She was also barred from speaking at an Afghan New Year celebration at the central shrine in Mazar-e Sharif, the Rowza Hazrat Ali, although government officials and other potential political candidates spoke, including Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and General Rashid Dostum. Jalal has also reported that police in the first district of Kabul prevented her from campaigning.86

[70] For more information about human rights abuses leading up to the presidential elections, see 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

[71] Ibid.; Human Rights Watch interview with official from an international NGO working on elections, Kabul, August 26, 2004; and Martin Huckerby, “Afghan voting number puzzle,” BBC, August 27, 2004 [online], (retrieved September 18, 2004).

[72] AIHRC-UNAMA, Joint Verification of Political Rights, First Report, 15 June - 7 July 2004, Kabul, 2004; “Third Afghan Woman Poll Worker Dies of Wounds,” Reuters, July 4, 2004; and “Women Killed in Afghan Bus Attack,” BBC, June 26, 2004.

[73] Pamela Constable, “Traditions, Terrorism Threaten Afghan Vote: Women Are Intimidated, Election Workers Attacked,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with N.M., women’s rights activist, Kabul, August 12, 2004; and Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. official, Kabul, August 12, 2004.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with N.M, Kabul, August 12, 2004.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. official, Kabul, August 12, 2004.

[76] Several election workers and NGOs told Human Rights Watch that civic education programs did not begin early enough to reach women in rural areas, also affecting women’s voter registration. One election worker said, “We had very limited time, it started very late. We had just two civic educators (for women), and only a few registration teams. For example, in [one] district, we had just one week. [The process] wasn’t complete, most people couldn’t participate because of the limited time, especially women.” Human Rights Watch phone interview with H.Q., civic educator, Kandahar, August 27, 2004.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Human Rights Watch phone interview with F.M., election worker, Kandahar, August 27, 2004. Of Kandahar’s registered voters, only 27 percent were women. JEMB, “Daily voter registration update, August 26, 2004,” [online], (retrieved September 24, 2004).

[79] JEMB, “Daily voter registration update, August 26, 2004,” [online], (retrieved September 24, 2004).

[80] See Human Rights Watch, The Rule of the Gun, 2004.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with official from an international NGO working on elections, Kabul, September 22, 2004.

[82] Human Rights Watch phone interview with B.L, women’s rights activist, Herat, September 2, 2004.

[83] The Asia Foundation, Voter Education Planning Survey: Afghanistan 2004 National Elections, A report based on a public opinion poll [online], (retrieved August 4, 2004).

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with A.L., women’s rights activist, Mazar-e Sharif, August 15, 2004.

[85] Human Rights Watch phone interview with H.Q., Kandahar, August 27, 2004.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Massouda Jalal, presidential candidate, Kabul, August 13, 2004; Human Rights Watch interview with AIHRC official, Kabul, August 28, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>October 2004