Special Report:
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

After 20 years of war, Afghans went to the polls for the first time on Oct. 9, 2004. Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan experts, on hand to witness the elections, reported the mood at most polling stations was jubilant, and understandably so. In the weeks and months leading up to the polls, voters were intimidated. The Taliban threatened to disrupt the voting. Activist women faced threats. Yet election day passed with few reports of serious violence.

Of course problems remain. Since the fall of the Taliban, Human Rights Watch has documented criminality and abuses by warlord forces across the country. Local factions are not the only threat to stability. In the south and southeast of the country, Taliban remnants and other anti-government forces outside Afghanistan's political framework have further aggravated security conditions by attacking humanitarian workers and coalition and Afghan government forces.

Women and girls bear some of the worst effects of Afghanistan's insecurity. Conditions are generally are better than under the Taliban, but women and girls continue to face severe governmental and social discrimination. Through intimidation and armed attacks, local warlord factions, the Taliban, and other insurgent forces have forced the closure of projects that provided desperately needed education, health, rights awareness, and job training to women and girls. Female journalists, activists, and government officials have reported death threats, harassment, and attacks for speaking out about sensitive women’s rights issues.

So it will be vital that the global attention brought by the presidential elections also focuses on the widespread intimidation of women and general insecurity in Afghanistan. Despite important progress over the past three years, there remain formidable obstacles to women becoming full participants in Afghan public life or standing for political office—obstacles that will present even greater challenges for women in parliamentary and local elections planned for next year.

Voter Registration and the October 9 Presidential Elections
The Afghan government, international donors, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) took many positive steps to encourage female voter registration in advance of the presidential election. They started civic education programs, 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 10.5 million registered voters in Afghanistan were women. But closer examination revealed that multiple registrations inflated voter registration figures. 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 rates in the south (Uruzgan province: 9 percent; Zabul: 10 percent; Helmand: 16 percent).

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.

Although election day was fairly peaceful, security threats, inadequate monitoring, and staffing problems on Oct. 9 may have limited Afghan women’s ability to vote. Women in the south may have been afraid to go to the polls, while others feared resistance from their families if they exercised their voting right. Election officials failed to recruit enough women poll workers to staff separate voting sites for women and instead staffed these sites with mullahs and respected male elders. Despite the attempt to mitigate sensitivities about mingling with men, the shortage of female poll workers no doubt prevented some women from casting their votes.

Obstacles to women’s equal participation in the presidential election also extended 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 presidency once the votes are counted, 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 have decided not to run because they fear 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 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.

Women and children in Kabul, October 4, 2004. Continuing religious and cultural conservatism and a dangerous security environment mean that women still struggle to participate in the country's evolving political institutions (Photo: Zalmai).
Women and children in Kabul, October 4, 2004. Continuing religious and cultural conservatism and a dangerous security environment mean that women still struggle to participate in the country's evolving political institutions (© Zalmai 2004).