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(New York) - As campaigning begins for the September 18 polls for parliament and provincial councils, the Afghan government and international monitors must take special measures to protect women from attacks and intimidation by the Taliban and regional warlords, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Afghanistan’s official election campaigning period kicks off today.

Human Rights Watch said that key measures to protect women candidates include improving complaint procedures and organizing direct coordination between security forces and the candidates.

“Women candidates in Afghanistan are courageously defying the Taliban, warlords, and conservative social norms that exclude them from public life,” said Nisha Varia, Asia Researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “The Afghan government, election observers, and peacekeeping forces can make a difference in women candidates’ safety and confidence by responding quickly to complaints of intimidation.”

The 28-page report, “Campaigning against Fear: Women’s Participation in Afghanistan’s 2005 Elections,” is based on dozens of interviews with women candidates and election workers during the past month. Human Rights Watch details the challenges confronting Afghanistan’s 582 women candidates, who make up approximately 10 percent of the total 5,800 candidates.

Human Rights Watch said that 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. In the south and the east of the country, Taliban forces have reemerged and are trying to disrupt the elections, while in other areas local military commanders seek to influence election results and intimidate voters and women candidates, who often are not aligned with parties.

One female parliamentary candidate in the eastern city of Jalalabad told Human Rights Watch, “I feel frightened. I am not afraid of Al Qaeda, I am afraid of commanders who are candidates.”

“It is no surprise women are worried about their security, with warlords and human rights abusers on the final candidate lists,” said Varia.

Human Rights Watch said that the September 18 elections for the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) and provincial councils are likely to witness increased levels of threats and intimidation compared to last year’s presidential elections, given the greater number of candidates and the local power at stake. The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in recent months, including the shooting of a female election worker, the murder of a woman accused as “an American spy” by the Taliban on August 10, and the assassination of six pro-government clerics, likely by the Taliban.

“There are two main threats around the polls—warlords who want to dominate the elections through any means necessary,” said Varia. “And there is the increasingly active Taliban, who have pledged to disrupt the election process itself.”

Human Rights Watch said that the failure of international donor countries to match the shortfall in Afghanistan’s election budget and to provide adequate security throughout the country may adversely affect women’s participation during the campaign period and on election day.

Under Afghanistan’s constitution and election laws, 25 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga) and the provincial councils are reserved for women. Approximately 12 percent of the candidates for the Wolesi Jirga, 328 out of 2707, are women.

Proportionally fewer women announced candidacies for the provincial councils, where pressure from local commanders and restrictive social norms will likely be greater than the national-level Wolesi Jirga in Kabul. Only 8 percent of the candidates for the provincial councils, 247 out of a total 3025, are women. In southern and eastern provinces with high levels of insecurity and resurgent Taliban forces, five reserved seats for women in provincial councils will stay empty because of a lack of women candidates.

The report describes how women candidates 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.

“Public outreach is often much riskier for women candidates. They encounter greater barriers than men if they choose to print their photographs on campaign posters, travel to conservative rural areas, or deliver public speeches,” said Varia. “Unfortunately, the lack of security means that many women candidates may curtail their campaigning.”

Human Rights Watch said that all international security forces, including NATO, forces in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and US troops should expand their mandate 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 all candidates, and they must prosecute the perpetrators.

Select personal accounts featured in the report:

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 province, July 27, 2005

I am afraid of going to Kalafghan district of Takhar province. I also don’t want to go to Chal district. They are remote areas and lots of commanders stand [as candidates] from there. I don’t walk out of my house by myself. I go everywhere with my father and brother.

─Woman provincial council candidate, Takhar province, August 7, 2005

Security has always been a concern since the fall of the Taliban. This recommendation has been repeated many times. But the government should come up with the mechanisms to ensure security. They say women are free. But they cannot just say they give rights to women, they have to ensure it. They have to make the environment safe and secure.

─Woman election worker, Kabul, August 10, 2005

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