Background Briefing

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I. Summary

Security is different for men and women. Men candidates have put their pictures everywhere in the bazaar. Women candidates can’t do that, because they are afraid. Somebody might come during the night and kill them. Anything can happen. Warlords are ruling. They can do anything they want. Commanders have lots of guns.

─Woman Wolesi Jirga candidate, Kandahar, July 27, 2005

The Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Council elections on September 18, 2005 will be a critical test of women’s freedom to participate in Afghanistan’s political life four years after the ouster of the Taliban—not only as voters, but also as candidates and elected representatives in every province.

A credible election with meaningful participation by women candidates will be a success for Afghanistan and the international community, strengthening the foundation for more women to become active in public life, not only as elected representatives, but in civil society, government, the media, and business. A campaign period and election day riddled with threats, intimidation, and social restrictions will highlight a gap between rhetoric and reality on women’s rights and feed into the disappointment many Afghan women have felt at the slow rate of progress since the fall of the Taliban. While many women have courageously entered the public sphere despite social taboos and security threats, the intimidation and violence are increasing as elections near.

The official campaign period begins on August 17, 2005, and Afghan women interested in political involvement will share the challenges of a poor security environment with their male colleagues. These include two formidable security problems: threats posed by warlords who want to expand their power at the local level, often through armed force and the abuse of power; and continuing violence in the south and east perpetrated by the Taliban and other insurgent groups that reject the elections altogether, including any participation by women.

But Afghan women confront risks above and beyond those faced by men. Women standing as candidates for the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) and Provincial Councils are also defying conservative gender roles deeply entrenched in many parts of the country. Even basic elements of campaign strategies—distributing photographs of themselves on flyers and campaign posters, delivering speeches in public places, and traveling through their provinces, are courageous moves in a country still haunted by the Taliban’s misogynistic legacy. While many women have begun working and rebuilding roles for themselves in public life, traditional gender roles still confine many Afghan women to the home and tightly restrict their interactions with unrelated men. In many parts of the country, most women wear head-to-toe burqas and must be accompanied by male relatives when traveling in public.

Women candidates exposing themselves to public review risk retaliation for disrupting social norms. Violence and intimidation against these women is highly symbolic and sends a chilling message to other Afghan women considering expanded roles in public life. High illiteracy rates and practical restrictions on travel have also presented barriers to providing election awareness programs to women voters and candidates in rural parts of the country and to recruiting adequate numbers of female election workers.

Disproportionately low numbers of women have chosen to stand as candidates for Provincial Council seats, where security is much more tenuous than in the country’s capital, Kabul, and where women expect to encounter greater resistance from conservative local elders and commanders. Human Rights Watch interviewed women of high public standing and professional credentials who cited travel-related security concerns, conservative family norms, limited financial resources, and intimidation by warlords and their subordinates as reasons they chose not to be candidates in September’s elections.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed dozens of women who have chosen to be candidates, but confront numerous challenges to equal participation, including access to information, free movement around the country, few guarantees for physical safety, and lack of financial resources compared to men. This briefing paper also describes incidents of intimidation and attacks against women candidates.

Women and men candidates in the east and southeast of the country have already confronted violent attacks by forces of a resurgent Taliban and other groups violently opposing the central government. These groups are opposed to women’s political participation and education. These events take place in the context of a deteriorating security situation in the last few months, marked by the assassination of six prominent pro-government clerics, the kidnapping of a female international aid worker who assisted war widows, and on August 10, 2005, the Taliban’s execution of a peasant woman accused of being an “American spy.” More than seven hundred people have been killed since March 2005 in fighting between U.S. and government forces and insurgents, many aligned with the Taliban.

Women’s problems are not limited to the south and east of the country. Even in areas with little or no Taliban presence, women face significant barriers in the face of armed factions who want to translate their military control into increased political authority. Many of these armed factions have been involved in violence against women, kidnappings, extortion, and armed robbery—abuses often ordered, committed, or condoned by commanders now holding government positions. These human rights violations have led to continuing barriers to women’s freedom of movement and access to education, health care, and employment.

Efforts by the Afghan government to organize free and fair elections have been hampered by its failure to screen out candidates with linkages to illegal armed groups and commanders implicated in gross human rights violations from the final candidate list. In the last few years, the Afghan government has lacked the power and political will to sideline and disarm warlords, many of whom now hold important government positions. While warlords seek to dominate the political process through legal and illegal means, the Taliban wish to disrupt it through violence. The capacity of the Afghan national army and police to ensure security and address lawlessness remains low. These problems, coupled with the failure to expand the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeeping troops throughout the country in a timely way has left many parts of the country under the effective control of gunmen with little respect for the rule of law and women’s rights.

This briefing paper is based on more than forty interviews conducted with women candidates, nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, U.N. officials, and election staff from mid-July to mid-August 2005 as well as extensive prior research. Most interviews were conducted by telephone from Kabul and New York, and included women candidates from Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Takhar, Kunduz, and Balkh provinces. 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 women candidates 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.

Key recommendations

With only a month remaining before polling day, the Afghan government and international community can still take concrete and immediate steps to address the security challenges confronted by candidates for the Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Councils as well as women who simply want to exercise their right to vote. Recommendations to support Afghan women who seek to participate in shaping the country’s political future, often at great risk to themselves, are outlined below.

  • The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), and election observers should promptly acknowledge receipt of complaints, investigate complaints, and address candidates’ security concerns. Individuals, including candidates, election staff, and political activists, should be allowed to submit official complaints over the phone.
  • JEMB, ISAF, UNAMA, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), and local security forces should coordinate closely on security issues at the local level and hold weekly meetings to discuss security concerns directly with candidates. Candidates should be provided with mobile numbers for security and election personnel.

  • The ECC should disqualify candidates who intimidate or target for violence women candidates and election workers, or who commit comparable electoral offenses.

  • The Afghan government and international donors should dedicate financial resources to facilitate women’s political participation, including transportation to polling sites on election day. They should commit resources to developing women’s access to educational and economic opportunities that will strengthen their participation as election workers, voters, and candidates in the future. They should also contribute funds to match the shortfall in Afghanistan’s election budget for the September 2005 elections to ensure adequate security and logistical infrastructure during the campaign period and on election day, as well as resources to respond to complaints promptly and effectively.

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