Background Briefing

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II. Background

Status of Afghan women

Afghan women continue to suffer some of the worst levels of poor health, illiteracy, and poverty in the world. Their low social status and poor access to the most basic services are strikingly illustrated by astoundingly high maternal mortality figures and illiteracy rates. Though accurate figures are difficult to obtain, according to UNICEF, one in six women in Afghanistan is expected to die in childbirth.1 Hundreds of thousands of Afghan women and girls die each year from lack of access to medical care—nationwide an estimated 87 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.2 According to 2003 UNICEF data, 86 percent of girls and women over the age of fifteen are illiterate.3 Education for boys and girls has expanded since the overthrow of the Taliban, but in some provinces remains abysmal. Compared to Kabul province where 60 percent of girls attend primary school, less than one out of every ten girls ages 7-13 attends primary school in seven southern provinces, where extremely conservative social values combine with increasingly high Taliban activity.4

Violence against women, forced marriage, and early marriage remain endemic problems in Afghanistan.5 Competing formal and informal justice mechanisms mean that victims of violence rarely have avenues for redress. There have been improvements in major cities, for example, Kabul and Herat, but the challenges of reconstruction and continuing insecurity mean that an environment where women and girls are able to realize their full range of rights remains far from reality.

Women’s political rights

The Afghan Constitution of 2004 and the 2005 Electoral Law contain provisions guaranteeing certain political rights and representation for women. The constitution guarantees women’s equal rights and duties before the law and reserves seats for women in Afghanistan’s bicameral National Assembly. Women are guaranteed a minimum of 68 of the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), or approximately 25 percent. In addition, half of the seats appointed by the president to the Meshrano Jirga (House of the Elders) are reserved for women (the president appoints one-third of the delegates). The 2005 Electoral Law expands guarantees for women’s representation in the Provincial Councils, reserving one quarter of the seats.

The Afghan Constitution also obliges the government “to protect human rights” and expressly requires the state to “abide by the U.N. charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Afghanistan acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) without any reservations on March 5, 2003.6 CEDAW requires governments to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right: (a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies.”7

Obstacles to women’s political participation after the Taliban (2001-2005)

Many delegates were commanders who had killed a lot of people, who had weapons and money. The things that we wanted to say in the [Constitutional] Loya Jirga─we were afraid to say them, because these [commanders] were sitting behind us.

─Woman delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga, Mazar-e Sharif, August 18, 2004

Positive reforms and grave obstacles mark Afghanistan’s efforts to integrate women into its political process. Given the context of continuing insecurity, restrictive social norms about women’s role in public life, and slow progress to prosecute warlords suspected of abuses, women have taken great risks to participate in Afghanistan’s emerging political institutions. Afghanistan’s current political process is based on the December 2001 Bonn Agreement.8 As set out by the agreement, an emergency loya jirga (grand council) met in June 2002 to pick a two-year transitional government. At that meeting, Hamid Karzai was chosen as the transitional President of Afghanistan. The Constitutional Loya Jirga was then convened in December 2003 to approve a new constitution and governmental structure, and presidential elections were held in October 2004. The terms of the Bonn Agreement pledged to foster the political participation of women in the loya jirgas and the interim administration.

Women comprised approximately 12 percent of the Emergency Loya Jirga delegates.9 Intimidation, threats, and the participation of powerful commanders accused of war crimes marred the process. Many women participants felt they were prevented from giving any substantive input. Only a few women were able to speak, and some reported their microphones were cut off after five minutes. In contrast, powerful mujahidin leaders, some of whom are alleged war criminals, were given half-hour-long speaking slots. Despite pressure to withdraw and vote for Hamid Karzai, Massouda Jalal, a female physician and U.N. staff member from Kabul, stood for the presidency at the Emergency Loya Jirga and went on to win 171 votes, second to Karzai's 1,295.

Women participated with greater freedom in the Constitutional Loya Jirga. Intimidation still figured strongly, however, and many observers accused military factions of preventing some individuals from standing as candidates, buying votes, and unfairly influencing the election of delegates. Despite improvement compared to the Emergency Loya Jirga, many female delegates still faced threats and harassment during the proceedings, or censored themselves due to fear of retaliation upon return to their home communities.10 Human Rights Watch interviewed several delegates who left the country temporarily or delayed their return home because of such fears.11 Several women delegates subsequently faced retaliation for their participation in the form of harassment, dismissals from their jobs, and transfers to less desirable positions.12

The Afghan government, international donors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) took many positive steps to encourage female voter registration in advance of the 2004 presidential election. They started civic education programs to raise awareness about the election process, hired female election workers, permitted women to get voter registration cards without photographs, and provided regularly updated registration figures disaggregated by gender. According to official tallies, 41 percent of registered voters in Afghanistan were women (official estimates put the number of registered voters at 10.5 million, but closer examination revealed that multiple registrations had inflated this figure). On election day, despite threats by the Taliban and various logistical difficulties, in fact 40 percent of the voters were women.13

During the run-up to the presidential election, security problems, particularly in the south, remained a significant barrier to civic education and voter registration drives targeting women. In some areas, fear of attacks prevented mobile registration teams from going door-to-door prior to the election, a critical method for reaching out to women in rural or conservative areas. These factors contributed to appallingly low female registration and voting rates in the south, for example, out of total registrants, only 9 percent in Uruzgan province, 10 percent in Zabul province, and 16 percent in Helmand province were women.14 A few weeks before the presidential election, a woman election worker 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. Because we don’t have enough women teams, a lot of women can’t register even if they want to.”15 In one of the most deadly examples of the security challenges, 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.

Nevertheless, in many parts of the country, election day was fairly peaceful and more than 45 percent of voters in provinces such as Herat, Daikundi, Faryab, and Paktika were women. In some provinces, security threats, inadequate monitoring, and staffing problems on election day may have limited Afghan women’s ability to vote. The percentage of women voters out of total voters in southern provinces was extremely low: Uruzgan (2 percent), Helmand (7 percent), Zabul (11 percent), and Kandahar (22 percent).16 In some areas, election officials did not recruit enough women poll workers to staff separate voting sites for women, likely preventing some women from casting their votes. A woman working as an election observer in Kandahar province during the presidential elections said, “One old man voted for all the family. He voted with twelve cards. A woman voted for her daughter-in-laws. The same thing might happen this year.”17

Obstacles to women’s equal participation in the presidential election also extended to the sole female presidential candidate, Massouda Jalal. A cabinet member barred her from speaking at an Afghan New Year celebration in Mazar-e Sharif because she was a woman and the event was at the central religious shrine. Male government officials and other potential political candidates spoke, including Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and General Abdul Rashid Dostum. She also reported receiving death threats.18

President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet choices were widely interpreted as an important signal of what balance he would strike between powerful and competing political forces in the country. Afghans were relieved when many prominent commanders, including former Defense Minister Marshall Fahim were excluded from the cabinet. Similar progress was not made with women’s representation. Karzai appointed three women to positions that carefully conformed to traditional gender roles: Massouda Jalal became Minister of Women’s Affairs, Amina Afzali, Minister of Youth, and Sediqa Balkhi, Minister of Martyrs and the Disabled. Karzai failed to appoint women to any internally powerful cabinet positions, even ones where women had previously held positions, such as the Ministry of Health. Human Rights Watch interviewed a woman in Herat province who said, “Women’s presence in parliament will only be symbolic as it is in the cabinet, if opportunities and security are not provided for independent women candidates.”19

1 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dr. Tessa Wardlaw, senior program officer, Statistics and Monitoring, UNICEF, June 3, 2003.

2 UNICEF, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Afghan Ministry Mortality in Afghanistan: Magnitude, Causes, Risk Factors and Preventability: Summary 5; and UNICEF and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Afghanistan for women’s health, say UNICEF and CDC,” November (retrieved November 15, 2002).

3 UNICEF and Central Statistics Office, Afghanistan Transitional Authority, Moving Beyond 2 Decades of War: Progress of Provinces, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2003 [online], (retrieved August 8, 2005).

4 Ibid. The seven provinces are Helmand, Uruzgan, Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Badghis, and Zabul (where only one out of every one hundred girls attends primary school). See also, The Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, “Report Card: Progress on Compulsory Education, Grades 1-9,” (Afghanistan: Oxfam, 2004).

5 See IRIN, “Afghanistan: Child marriage rate still high – minister,”, July 13, 2004 [online] (retrieved August 5, 2004); Amnesty International, Afghanistan: Women still under attack - a systematic failure to protect, (Amnesty International: London, 2005) [online] (retrieved June 1, 2005), and Human Rights Watch, Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us”: Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003).

6 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), G.A. Res. 34/180, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, 1979 entered into force September 3, 1981 and acceded to by Afghanistan on March 5, 2003.

7 CEDAW, art. 7(a). Article 7(b) additionally provides women the equal right to, “participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government.”

8 The Bonn Agreement is an accord signed by representatives of the militia forces who fought with the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban, representatives of the former King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, and representatives of various other exiled Afghan groups.

9 Approximately 1,600 delegates participated in the Emergency Loya Jirga. One hundred and sixty seats were reserved for women, and overall, some two hundred women delegates were either elected or appointed. See also, International Crisis Group, “The Afghan Transitional Administration: Prospects and Perils,” Kabul/Brussels: ICG, July 30, 2002 and Womankind Worldwide, “Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Six Months On,” London: Womankind Worldwide, July 2002 [online](retrieved September 27, 2004).

10 Human Rights Watch, Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Threats Against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004). In one of the most dramatic moments of the meetings, a young female delegate from Farah province, Malalai Joya, publicly demanded that former warlords be tried in national and international courts. Other participants tried to expel her from the assembly. Despite becoming a heroine to many Afghans, she has received numerous death threats. “Afghan rights advocate expects death,” BBC, August 9, 2004.

11 Human Rights Watch, Between Hope and Fear, 2004.

12 One woman from northern Afghanistan was told by a senior government official that, as a female delegate, she was acting against the principles of Islam. She said, “after I participated in the Loya Jirga, I did not receive my salary for six months,” Human Rights Watch interview with a woman Constitutional Loya Jirga delegate, August 16, 2004. Other women delegates said that local authorities and commanders directly harassed them through phone calls or in face-to-face meetings upon their return from the loya jirgas. One woman told Human Rights Watch that local “elders told me that they were ashamed I was their representative, and that I am a woman. They humiliated me. They told me not to go to these type of meetings anymore…. I didn’t try to talk a lot with them…because if I made them nervous, they would kill me and no one would even know,” Human Rights Watch interview with a woman Constitutional Loya Jirga delegate, August 28, 2004.

13 JEMB, “Afghan Presidential Election Results: Voter Turnout,” [online](retrieved August 12, 2005).

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

15 Human Rights Watch phone interview with a woman civic educator, Kandahar, August 27, 2004.

16 JEMB, “Afghan Presidential Election Results: Voter Turnout,” [online],(retrieved August 12, 2005).

17 Human Rights Watch phone interview with a woman election worker, Kandahar, July 27, 2005.

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

19 Human Rights Watch phone interview with a women’s rights activist, Herat province, August 10, 2005.

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