8/20/2005

Campaigning against Fear: Women's Participation in Afghanistan's 2005 Elections: II. Background



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III. Barriers to women’s participation in the September 2005 elections

In addition to contending with increasing insecurity from Taliban forces and local militias, September’s elections for the Wolesi Jirga and Provincial Councils present a complicated logistical exercise, given the number of candidates, districts, and provinces. In response to these problems—all of them more difficult than during last year’s presidential elections—some changes have been adopted based on lessons learned from the 2004 elections. These include the establishment of an official complaints body, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC). Many voters and election workers now have the experience of one election behind them, and civic educators are able to build on the growing levels of voter awareness, including the idea of a secret ballot and addressing interference by polling officials on election day. This year, more domestic and international observers will be present to monitor the elections, although security problems limit the reach of international observers in particular.20

Few women as candidates or political party members

In the final candidate list, although 25 percent of seats are reserved for women, female candidates represent about 12 percent of the candidates for the Wolesi Jirga (328 out of 2707) and 8 percent of the candidates for Provincial Councils (247 out of 3025).21 In the period after the deadline for submitting candidate nominations and the finalization of the candidate lists in July, 281 potential candidates withdrew and 17 were excluded.22 Fifty-one of the withdrawals were women, a disproportionately high number given the relatively low number of candidates. Some women cited procedural issues for their withdrawals, such as relatives who worked in the election commission or their unwillingness to step down from current jobs. But as will be discussed in more detail later, many women also voiced concern about security threats, barriers to campaigning in rural areas, and financial constraints.

The numbers of women candidates for Provincial Councils is especially low, suggesting that security in provincial centers falls far short of the relative safety slowly being established for women in the national arena. Women delegates in provincial capitals will have to work more closely with local-level elders and commanders who may reject women’s political participation. One women’s rights activist explained:

For the Wolesi Jirga, the center of activities is in Kabul. For the Provincial Councils, the center of activities is in the provinces. Women don’t feel secure in the provinces. Also, the role of delegates in the Provincial Councils is not clear yet. What are their main duties? Is it part-time, full-time, paid, a decision-making role, advisory capacity, it’s not clear to a lot of people.23

Regulations on the responsibilities of delegates in Provincial Councils have yet to be finalized by the government.

There are so few women candidates for the Provincial Councils in Zabul, Uruzgan, and Nangarhar provinces, that five seats reserved for women will remain empty. A woman who chose to be a candidate for a Provincial Council said, “We need security even after we win. Because we are not parliament candidates, we don’t go to Kabul. We have to stay here with all commanders in the Provincial Council, so we need security.”24

High numbers of candidates in this election are running as independents, and this is especially true of women. Many of the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch associated political parties with military factions with “blood on their hands” and notorious warlords as their leaders. 25 A significant issue is the lack of financial resources that many independent women candidates suffer in comparison to men.26 Afghan women still struggle to participate in the labor force, and are often concentrated in low-paying jobs. Many women candidates are teachers with modest salaries. Civic educators and election trainers noted that some women have registered as independents although they are in fact backed by political parties and organizations.27 They have focused their efforts on empowering these women to make their own decisions rather than being pawns of political parties where they are excluded from decision-making roles.

The exclusion of women from prominent positions in powerful political parties will undermine Afghan women’s equal participation in Afghanistan’s developing political system. Few political parties made systematic efforts to recruit women as candidates. An international trainer working on Afghan women’s political participation said:

One of the main ways that the number of women in parliament in other countries has increased has been through the increase of women in parties. Almost all the Afghan women interested in nominating themselves want to be independent…. Women in political parties are like window dressing, the [party leaders] put them in charge of women’s sections which are almost just like NGOs with literacy and tailoring programs.28

Afghan women and international donors observed that several political parties are only using women to fulfill the quotas and are not committed to creating conditions for women to participate equally in party structures or to occupy positions of responsibility. One woman described to us how she was selected by her political party in 2004 to stand for political office: unexpectedly, they approached her and said, “We chose you.” She recounted, “The elders said, ‘you don’t talk, say yes.’ I can’t [reject] what the elders say, they are mujahid. I said yes.”29 A woman providing candidate training and awareness programs said that, “We are telling women to be decision-makers, ‘don’t be used.’ The political parties are including them as members, but not in decision-making. They are using women only as a symbol. This is very painful for us.”30

Another woman said that several different political parties had invited her to work with them, mostly ethnic parties. She went to some of the meetings and said, “They wrote something and gave it to me and told me to read it out loud [at a program]. The executive board was all men. I can’t work like that. I see they don’t treat women as equals. Some women were there but they were not thinking independently.”31
Barriers to election employment and civic education for women

In testament to Afghan women’s commitment and interest in playing a greater role in shaping the country’s future, an increasing number of women have braved social barriers and physical threats to take part in the political process. Nevertheless, these barriers have inhibited Afghan women from achieving the level of political education and freedom of movement necessary for participating fully in this year’s elections.

This year, many previously unregistered women registered to vote, including in areas that showed dismal female participation in 2004. Women comprised many of the new registered voters in Paktia (56%), Paktika (59.4%), Uruzgan (51%), and Ghazni (48.8%). Among the successes cited by the Joint Election Management Body (JEMB) is Ajrestan district of Ghazni province, where no women registered last year and where 15,442 women registered this year.32

Election officials are struggling, as they did last year, to recruit adequate numbers of female workers to staff women’s polling sites on election day. Security threats, limited education opportunities for women and girls, and social restrictions on women’s travel have hampered recruitment. A JEMB official said, “In Nuristan and Kunar, it is difficult for women to work, they are not allowed. In Zabul, there are [almost] no women staff. Paktia, Khost, it is difficult to work. If they cannot find women, they will have to recruit men.”33 One election official noted that in some provinces, there were, “no girls’ schools until two years ago…. It is hard to get educated women as district field coordinators, which requires women to be able to read. In most cases we have put in enormous effort. In some cases, we just couldn’t find women who can read. [For the issue of women’s polling sites,] we had to go to local shuras (councils) and say, please allow women to go to polling stations staffed by men.”34

The south and east of the country remain the most insecure areas for both women and men. In these areas, women will face particular difficulties to campaign freely and even to vote. This difficulty reflects the strongly chauvinistic, conservative culture of these areas, as well as the growing activity of religious extremist forces, many of them aligned with the Taliban, which oppose any role for women in public life. One election worker said that, “In Zabul and Nuristan…a lot of women can’t be hired [as poll workers] or vote. There are very few women candidates in those provinces. That is a concern. In such provinces, in such an environment, it is very clear, women will not be allowed to vote.”35

Interviewees repeatedly brought up women’s lack of awareness about parliament, the Provincial Councils, and how to participate as voters and candidates. Conducting civic education campaigns among rural women is particularly difficult given restrictions on their freedom of movement, long travel distances to awareness programs, and opposition by some women’s families. Even women candidates may have less regular contact with the media and election officials, and therefore less information about election rules and procedures. An election official said that women candidates had “woefully little information. Women candidates didn’t know about the ECC [Election Complaints Commission] or the complaints procedure.”36 Some of the candidates interviewed by Human Rights Watch suggested the establishment of an official complaints office, unaware that such a mechanism has already been created. A woman working for a women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) said, “We need more time for awareness campaigns. There is very little information to candidates…. It started two to three months back, but should have started one year back. In the districts, women have not been beneficiaries [of civic education].”37
Insecurity and violent attacks

Unfortunately, a woman being threatened is something normal in Afghanistan, nobody takes it really seriously.

─Woman Wolesi Jirga candidate for Takhar province, Kabul, August 3, 2005

The security situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan in the last six months, including high-profile cases of social and political violence against women. These include the killing of three women in Baghlan province with a note left on their bodies warning women against working for NGOs, the kidnapping of a female international aid worker who assisted war widows, and the murder of a woman in Badakshan province accused of adultery.38 On August 10, 2005, a peasant woman in Zabul province was dragged out of her house and executed by the Taliban, who accused her of being an “American spy.”39 The shooting raised fears about increased targeting of women.

There are significant differences in the nature and intensity of security threats throughout the country. In the south and southeast of the country, most insecurity is caused by forces allied with the Taliban, who have vigorously reemerged to disrupt the election process, including attacks on voter registration sites and election workers. In the east and north of the country, forces of local militias and armed factions seek to assert their control over regional candidates and, ultimately, the national parliament and Provincial Councils. These forces use their arms for political power, and often, control over local crime, smuggling, and Afghanistan’s surging poppy production to intimidate their political opposition. In the northeast, not only social conservatism, but also physical terrain and distance present obstacles. Candidates often have to walk for days to reach election centers, a more significant barrier for women compared to men. Women in western Herat province describe a more open environment after the former governor Ismael Khan was removed, but intimidation by local commanders remains a concern especially in rural areas.

Election-related violence and intimidation have already begun to take place. On June 3, a male civic educator was murdered by the Taliban in Uruzgan province,40 and on July 20, gunmen killed a male civic educator in Paktika province. Voter registration centers were also attacked in Paktika, Khost, Uruzgan, and Daikundi provinces.41 Many candidates fear to report intimidation and investigators also face difficulties in confirming the actual events and motives. A dilemma for women is they often do not know how far they can push social norms and their political freedoms without incurring retaliation. Cases of threats and intimidation include:

* According to the JEMB, on July 17, 2005, a female district field coordinator was shot in the leg by unidentified gunmen. This incident took place in Kamdesh district, Nuristan province. In this same district, five days later, eighty men descended upon the village of Kotya and abducted three men, including two election workers. They were released one day later, reportedly unharmed, but as of this writing, no arrests had yet been made.42
* A female candidate in Logar discovered an attempt to set fire to her house. According to media reports, she said that she found a bottle filled with explosive liquid set against the door of her house. It exploded and sent flames against her door.43
* On June 17, 2005, three rockets were fired at the house of a female candidate in Wardak. One rocket landed inside her property. The candidate is from a prominent family and has received threats in the past related to anti-government protests. She reported that she knew the perpetrator, but did not reveal the name for fear of retaliation. She did not make an official complaint to UNAMA or the ECC.44
* In mid-2005, a candidate in Kandahar received repeated threats over the phone. She told Human Rights Watch, “The phone calls were all threatening my life. They asked me to give up running for parliament or something would happen to me. They would kill me. I have told UNAMA and AIHRC about the phone calls.” She also reported two events in early August, one in which two men approached her on the street, one wielding a gun, and one in which men came to her house. She said, “I was really frightened…. I reported it to the security commander…. I am really scared now. I wasn’t very worried about the phone calls…[but] these recent events have made me frightened. I don’t go out at all. I don’t know what I should do when the official campaign starts.”45

Although security remains a problem for both men and women candidates, women face extra risks. One female candidate told Human Rights Watch, “Women have more security problems than men. Women can’t go out alone. Women can be raped.”46 An attack against any women candidate is highly symbolic and therefore can increase fear among all women candidates. Another candidate noted said, “Yes, women have more security problems. Coming out of your home just by yourself is thought a sin. Women are threatened, humiliated and men candidates say bad things about them. Women feel insecure.”47

Campaigning against Fear: Women's Participation in Afghanistan's 2005 Elections: II. Background

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