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As Election Nears in Afghanistan, Women’s Political Participation Is Critical

September 18, 2013

Last May, Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament quietly removed an electoral law that stipulated that a quarter of all provincial council seats should be allotted to women. When women politicians found out nearly a month later, they fought to have the bill recalled. In July, the lower house reinstated the law, but lowered the allotment to 20 percent. Many worry that this setback, combined with recent deadly attacks on women politicians, threatens women’s participation – both as voters and potential candidates – in the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Afghan women vote in election.

Women comprise approximately 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population, and in the past decade, their participation in politics has increased, and has consistently been held up as a major achievement for women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban.

Women comprise approximately 55 percent of Afghanistan’s population, and in the past decade, their participation in politics has increased, and has consistently been held up as a major achievement for women’s rights since the fall of the Taliban. There are currently 68 women members in parliament’s lower house, 28 women senators in the upper house, three women ministers, a female governor, a woman director of the Human Rights Commission, a woman director of the Red Crescent, and nine women are members of the High Peace Council. Women’s participation in political life – as voters, candidates, and leaders will help to ensure that their grievances are heard and interests are secured in the long term. Empowering Afghan women as political actors can help to influence government policy (such as changing spending patterns to benefit children and future generations) and help make institutions more representative of a range of voices. Empowering women in politics and society can improve the prospects for a sustainable political settlement as a basis for long-term development in Afghanistan.

The current environment presents both challenges and opportunities. Although there is limited evidence of significant shifts in power relations between men and women in Afghanistan, there is some evidence of gradual improvements of women’s influence, and this has been largely driven by women’s political participation. However, there is danger that the visibility of women in politics will decline if their gains are not maintained and consolidated. The majority of women in parliament and provincial councils are elected through the quota system rather than an open vote. This has led to the perception among some that these women representatives are voted for by women only, and that they represent women alone, rather than society as a whole. However, evidence from other countries, including India and Zambia, shows that this approach can in fact ensure that women are present in public spaces, which, without this mandatory quota, would otherwise be hard to access, and provides entry points through which they can start to influence policy and decision-making. Last year, the executive director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, called for “stronger commitment by leaders to increase women’s participation in politics,” and argued for quotas to reduce inequality in parliaments. That said, there has also been a significant increase in the number of women candidates elected through open rather than quota vote (a total of 13 in the 2009/10 elections compared to none in the 2004/05 elections).

One longstanding challenge is that the role of men, especially in rural areas, in women’s decision-making and political participation is often ignored. Most Afghan women still lack access to education and remain homebound due to cultural-religious restrictions. The male members of the family are the decision-makers and decide whether women can leave their homes, and thus, whether or not they are able to participate in civic and political activities.

On August 28, The Asia Foundation along with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, women Members of the Parliament, and the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs launched the “Increasing Women’s Political Participation and Dialogue Opportunities in Afghanistan” project.

Supported by the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), the project aims to ensure women’s visibility as voters and candidates in the electoral processes in 2014 and 2015 in Afghanistan. The project will also provide training to women members of parliament, provincial councilors, and potential women candidates to deliver campaign messages, facilitate networking, and organize mentoring events with public figures and civil society organizations in order to encourage women to run in the upcoming elections.

The project will provide formal and informal dialogue forums with traditional and religious scholars (ulema), as well as community members in various social settings such as mosques, community centers, and provincial centers, to discuss election-related issues and create public service messages on the importance of women’s political participation to be broadcast on national media. Moreover, the project is now identifying male presidential candidates to incorporate targeted messages on the importance of women in politics in their campaign messages.

Addressing the participants during the kickoff event, Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women MP stated: “Encouraging religious scholars to attain cooperation of the general public in supporting women in the electoral processes results in positive collaboration.” She continued: “Inspiring women to practice their voting rights avoids proxy voting by men.” Engaging religious leaders is an essential component of the program – according to The Asia Foundation’s 2012 Survey of the Afghan People, religious leaders are among the most trusted institutions in Afghanistan, and more than two-fifths of respondents (43%) say religious leaders consider the public interest more than personal interests when making decisions and policies. To this end, there’s a need to educate religious scholars and, through them, the male members of the families on why it’s important that the women in their households actively take part in the decision-making and political arena.

Mr. Amarkhail, chief electoral office of the IEC, said at the launch: “Increased women’s participation in the upcoming elections will confer legitimacy and transparency to the entire electoral processes.” He also called on the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to “take good security measures, especially for women to make good use of their political right and cast their ballots freely and without fear.

Idrees Ilham is director of The Asia Foundation’s Governance Program in Afghanistan. He can be reached at Iilham@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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