Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

AFGHANISTAN: Was Women’s Vote a Roar, or a Whisper?

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 27 2005 (IPS) - While the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush describes the recent elections in Afghanistan as a major step forward for the war-torn nation, human rights groups here wonder if women will have an effective voice in the new parliament.

A few weeks before the Sep. 18 legislative elections, about 51 women were forced to withdraw their candidacies because of security concerns, says Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based advocacy group, in a report documenting a number of cases where women were unable to campaign in rural areas because of threats from warlords.

Titled “Campaigning Against Fear: Women’s Participation in Afghanistan’s 2005 Elections”, the report pointed out that there were many “threats and obstacles” not only for the women candidates but also their supporters, as activists, journalists, and teachers.

“We are encouraged by the high numbers of women who registered to vote, but have yet to see the actual turnout of women voters,” Nisha Varia of Human Rights Watch told IPS after the elections. “We expect that while turnout may be high in some areas, women’s participation as voters and as candidates was much more restricted in areas still ruled by the gun, rather than by law.”

Final results for the elections are not due until Oct. 22, although women are supposed to be guaranteed a quarter of the parliamentary seats.

However, Varia said that Afghan warlords who are obsessed with male dominant customs and values created a variety of obstacles for women willing to contest and participate in polls.

“Imagine a woman candidate who posts her photograph on a campaign flyer. She is challenging social norms, given that most women still wear a head-to-toe burqa in public,” said Varia.

“In some places, women candidates did most of their campaigning through male relatives. We know of one female election worker who was shot, and one female candidate who was shot. A few others reported attacks on their homes and vehicles, but the majority of women faced obstacles in the form of threats delivered by telephone or letters from the warlords.”

One female parliamentary candidate in the eastern city of Jalalabad told HWR staffers in an interview, “I feel frightened. I am not afraid of al-Qaeda, I am afraid of commanders who are candidates.”

Even though warlords are the main security threat in Afghanistan, many of them ran for parliamentary and provincial council seats.

“I do not share the enthusiasm of (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai and Bush because they have often used women’s participation as an excuse to justify their policies,” Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation, told IPS.

“The most dire threats to women’s rights are coming from fundamentalist warlords, whom both the U.S. and Karzai have propped up and supported for years,” she added.

Kolhatkar said only a very few steps were taken to get rid of candidates with dubious rights records, noting that only about 50 out of 200 blacklisted politicians were excluded from the election.

Selay (no last name), the spokeswoman for the Pakistan-based Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), shares Kolhatkar’s observations on the inclusion of candidates who are known for widespread violations of human rights, particularly women’s rights.

“They include both the anti-U.S. Taliban and the pro-U.S. Northern Alliance,” she told IPS in an email interview.

Women leaders note that many candidates had ties with illegal armed gangs and fundamentalist groups. For example, warlords like Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, a former guerrilla leader whose abuses have been documented by HRW, ran in the elections, along with Mohammed Qalamuddin, former minister of the department of vice and virtue, which was called “the most misogynist.department in the whole world” by the U.N. in 1999.

According to preliminary results released Tuesday, Sayyaf was running fourth in Kabul province, which includes the Afghan capital. With 9.2 percent of ballots counted from the province, the most votes were going to the runners-up in the 2004 presidential election, Mohammed Mohaqeq and Yunus Qanooni.

Noting that only 12 percent of the 2,707 candidates for the Wolesi Jirga (Parliament) and less than 10 percent of the 3,025 candidates for the provincial council were women, Selay said: “These figures are not desirable at all.”

According to press accounts, women were effectively denied the vote in several provinces, including Zabul, Nangarhar and Khost, where officials refused to set up separate polling places for women.

U.N. officials who closely watched the election scene in Afghanistan see the democratic exercise as promising, but agree that women’s access to power is still far from being ideal.

“Women in rural areas continue to face very real difficulties, including mistreatment and violence against them by men,” said Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Kabul. “The problem of child and forced marriage continues, with girls as young as seven being promised to men much older than them. There continue to be reports of honour killings, trafficking of women, and sexual and domestic violence.”

Edwards said access to justice for women remains “very poor, and women who do report crimes risk being ignored, accused of sexual offences, unjustly tried or worse”.

“This is a very difficult process in a country where law and order and judicial institutions are still very weak,” Filippo Grandi, a U.N. official, regarding screening and disqualifying doubtful candidates at a press briefing three days before the election.

“The justice system needs to be overhauled,” said Kolhatkar. “Progressive judges need to be hired. Currently there are some very fundamentalist judges who pass very harsh sentences on women according to their extreme interpretation of Sharia law.”

She said many of the warlords who contested the elections as candidates hold conservative views on women’s rights – ideologically similar to the Taliban – and will not be able to lead the country to protect women’s right to education.

However, activists acknowledge that there has been some progress since the end of the Taliban regime, such as the quotas in the parliament which ensure that there is participation by women.

“But for the most part, things are still very bad. Maternal mortality is still among the highest in the world, and women have little access to education, health care, employment and decent housing,” said Kolhatkar.

Given that the composition of the new parliament is in favour of fundamentalist groups and warlords, Selay is not so optimistic about an improvement in the human rights situation for Afghan women.

“We think it will be distrusting and a nightmare for the Afghan people,” she said of the parliament. “This is the result of the wrong policies of the Karzai government and their U.S. masters to promote, support and give a free hand to the pro-U.S. warlords in Afghanistan.”

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