Women and Elections in Afghanistan
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
Widespread intimidation of women and general insecurity threaten women’s right to vote freely in the October 9, 2004 presidential elections, stand for political office and fully participate in public life. Parliamentary and local elections planned for next year will present even greater challenges for women.
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. There have been notable improvements for women and girls. More than one million girls are enrolled in school and the new Constitution contains guarantees for women’s equal rights.
However, warlords and the Taliban are undermining Afghan women’s participation in the political process through ongoing threats and attacks. Throughout the country, militarized political factions are using force, threats, and corruption to stifle more legitimate political activity and dominate the election process.
Women are targeted for challenging women’s traditional roles in society. Female journalists, activists, and government officials have reported death threats, harassment, and attacks for speaking out about sensitive women’s rights issues. Through intimidation and armed attacks, local warlord factions, the Taliban, and other insurgent forces have forced the closure of women’s development projects that provide desperately needed education, health, rights awareness, and job training to women and girls.
Security concerns have led to intermittent suspension and curtailment of civic education programs and voter registration efforts, with a particularly negative impact on women. They also threaten women’s participation on election day.
Voter Registration and the October 9 Presidential Elections
The Afghan government, international donors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taken many positive steps to encourage female voter registration. They have started civic education programs, hired female election workers, permitted women to get voter registration cards without photographs, and have provided regularly updated registration figures disaggregated by gender.
According to official tallies, 41 percent of 10.5 million registered voters in Afghanistan are women. But closer examination reveals that multiple registrations have inflated voter registration figures. 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. These factors contributed to appallingly low female registration rates in the south: In Uruzgan province, 9 percent of registered voters are women; in Zabul province, the figure is 10 percent; in Helmand province, 16 percent in Helmand province.
A female 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.” 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.”
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 12.
Security threats, inadequate monitoring, and staffing problems threaten Afghan women’s ability to vote on election day. Some women, especially those in the south, may be afraid to go to the polls. Others may confront resistance from their families. Election officials have failed to recruit enough women poll workers to staff separate voting sites for women. Instead, they will staff these sites with mullahs and respected male elders. Despite this attempt to mitigate sensitivities about mingling with men, the shortage of female poll workers may prevent some women from casting their votes.
Obstacles to women’s equal participation in the presidential election extend to the sole female presidential candidate, Massouda Jalal. She was 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 receiving threats.
Planning Ahead: Promoting Women’s Participation in the 2005 Parliamentary Elections:
In many ways, parliamentary and local elections planned for 2005 will be a better barometer of political progress and women’s rights than the presidential election. While Karzai is expected to win the presidential vote, the power of local authorities will be directly on the line in the parliamentary elections. The new Afghan constitution guarantees that approximately a quarter of seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People) are reserved for women.
The parliamentary and local elections can reasonably be expected to be more highly contested. They will therefore 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 Afghan women who were considering running for office in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Almost all of them expected warlords and dominant political factions to intimidate them if they decided to run for office.
Since then, some women have committed to be candidates. Others indicated they will not run because they are afraid for the safety of themselves and their families.
“I don’t think I should run for parliament,” one women’s rights activist from Mazar-e Sharif said. “I have to sit quiet. I think the conditions are not good [for me to run]…. Maybe there will be a problem for me, or for my friends, because they would help me campaign.”
In northern Afghanistan, one woman, whom we will call P.S. to protect her identity, has begun collecting the 500 copies of voter registration cards—the equivalent of signatures—required to qualify as a candidate. She is planning to run as an independent, and her supporters have faced harassment from the dominant military faction.
“My brother-in-law collected a few cards for me. The police harassed him….They arrested him at his shop,” P.S. said. She believes that a powerful warlord is responsible for ordering the harassment and the intimidation of another friend who was collecting cards for her. But she cannot confront him directly because of fears of retaliation. “I was afraid. I myself was too afraid to go and talk to him because he has weapons and power,” she told Human Rights Watch.
In addition to intimidation and direct threats through weapons, many potential female candidates had decided not to run because they feared rampant election manipulation. One woman said, “I am not hopeful that independent women will be successful. In the provinces, all the commanders have collected votes…. Every Friday they kill lots of animals, and feed people, they offer this much money, and land to build a house—even if it is government land. They promise to send children abroad to study.”
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 vote without fear of retaliation and violence.
So long as armed factions retain control, women must risk their safety to participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and to assert their political rights.