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(Kabul) - Warlords and the Taliban are undermining Afghan women’s participation in the political process through ongoing threats and attacks. Widespread intimidation of women and general insecurity threaten women’s right to vote freely in the October 9 presidential elections, stand for political office and fully participate in public life.

The 39-page report, “Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Threats Against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan,” details how warlord factions, the Taliban and various insurgent groups attack and harass women government officials, election workers, journalists and women’s rights activists.

A pervasive atmosphere of fear persists for women involved in politics and women’s rights in Afghanistan, despite significant improvements in women’s lives since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. A women’s rights activist threatened in a northern province told Human Rights Watch: “They called me on my mobile, saying, ‘You are doing things you should not. We will kill you as an example to other women.’”

“Many Afghan women risk their safety if they participate in public life,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Bush administration is particularly proud of the progress women have made. But Afghan women themselves say their hopes for even basic rights have gone unfulfilled.”

The October 9 presidential elections will be a key test of women’s ability to participate in the Afghan public sphere on an equal basis with men. An important sign of progress has been the large numbers of women registered to vote in many parts of the country. But multiple registrations have inflated official election figures, which state that 41 percent of the 10.5 million registered Afghan voters are women. Near the Pakistan border, continuing insecurity due to insurgents has contributed to women comprising less than 10 percent of registered voters in southern Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.

The failure of international donor countries—including the United States and Germany—to send promised funds on time and bolster security may adversely affect women’s participation on election day. The months leading up to the election have been punctuated with violence. So far, at least 12 election workers have been killed—at least three of whom were women—and dozens injured. Failing to enlist the thousands of female poll workers needed, election officials have resorted in some places to staffing female polling stations with local male elders.

The report describes how women are targeted for challenging women’s traditional roles in society. Women journalists, activists and government officials have reported death threats, harassment and attacks for speaking out about sensitive women’s rights issues such as divorce. Through intimidation and armed attacks, local warlord factions, the Taliban and other insurgent forces have forced the closure of women’s development projects, which provide desperately needed education, health, rights awareness and job training to women and girls.

“Since the ousting of the Taliban, women’s lives in Afghanistan have undoubtedly improved,” said Jefferson. “But now it’s the warlords who are actively trying to keep women from exercising their rights.”

Under ongoing conditions of insecurity, women cannot fully participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan without risking their safety. Many fear retaliation and restrict their speech and activities accordingly. Scores of women’s rights activists told Human Rights Watch that the failure to disarm local militias has gravely endangered and slowed progress for women’s rights.

Parliamentary elections planned for next year will present even greater challenges for women. Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of potential women parliamentary candidates who believe they and their families will be in danger if they decide to run. One women’s rights activist told Human Rights Watch, “I don’t think I should run for parliament…. [The warlords’] men will come at night and make problems for my family, so it’s not possible. I have to sit quiet.”

The United States, NATO and other international actors should take immediate and decisive steps to fulfill their commitments to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan. Countries involved in Afghanistan, including NATO member states, should vastly increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Human Rights Watch said.

Moreover, the United States and its NATO allies should refocus the mandate of international security forces toward disarming militias and protecting targeted groups such as women and independent political actors. The Afghan authorities should fully investigate threats, harassment and attacks against Afghan women, and they must prosecute the perpetrators.

Select personal accounts featured in the report:
• “So many women wanted to make organizations for women’s rights. When they saw the threats, they left the work.” — a women’s rights activist in Mazar-e Sharif.
• “Women cannot present themselves as candidates. In Kabul it is OK, but in other provinces, security is not good. If there are security problems, maybe armed men will come to their houses, and maybe they will be killed.” — a potential parliamentary candidate
• A local armed militia sent us “warnings and threats, they said they would kill us. The health educator and literary teacher faced many threats, and they decided not to come to the center. The governor promised to do his best to reopen the center and to talk to the mullahs. He could not give us any guarantees for our safety. We are still waiting for the security situation to improve.”— an aid worker who was involved in a women’s rights center closed due to threats

In a report released on September 28, “The Rule of the Gun,” Human Rights Watch described how local military factions threaten the population and create an environment of political repression.

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