DESPITE violence that included the killing of 22 people at an election rally for a female candidate, women voters turned out in large numbers for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan last weekend, a Christian Aid partner said this week.
While lamenting a security situation that was “unfortunately getting worse day by day”, the charity’s gender programme manager for Afghanistan, Zuhal Malekzay, said that in some areas they had even outnumbered male voters.
Voters were defying not only the Taliban, which has demanded that Afghans boycott the elections, but cynicism, she said. “Some do not believe in our parliament; they say it’s corrupt — that even a person who is somehow clean from corruption will join parliament and be like that. Credit goes to NGOs . . . for their work on raising people’s awareness, and importance of participation in the election.”
The parliamentary elections held on Saturday were meant to be held in 2015, and are the first since 2010. In addition to security fears — several candidates are among more than 100 election-related killings, and the Taliban threatened to carry out attacks against schools used as polling centres — chaotic administration and fears of fradulent votes marred the process.
About three million people voted, but Reuters reported that more than 400 polling stations were closed, “often because staff failed to turn up”. More than 120 attacks involving grenades or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were reported on Saturday, and dozens of people were killed and wounded. A suicide bomber killed 15 people in Kabul.
“Armed men loyal to local power-brokers in some provinces entered polling stations by force and broke election materials, and, on Sunday, the bodies of four observers were found in the northern province of Balkh after they had been abducted a day earlier and shot,” Reuters reported.
Earlier this month, in an attack at a rally for a candidate, Nazifa Yousuf Bek, a 32-year-old teacher, 22 people were killed. “My supporters were waiting to listen to my speech, but in a few seconds I was surrounded by their bodies,” she told the agency. “I am shaken, but I am also determined to continue the election campaign. This is my responsibility.”
In total, 417 women candidates are contesting seats, and at least 68 seats are reserved for them. Currently, 28 per cent of MPs are women. Ms Malekzay hopes that the percentage will increase. “In a lot of cases, women’s rights have been undermined.”
The Taliban were present all over the country, she said; most provinces were “directly or indirectly in their control”. UN figures suggest that the first half of the year was the most deadly for civilians since 2009: suicide bombings and other improvised IEDs were the main causes.
The government’s overtures to the Taliban — it has asked them to be part of a “credible Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process” — meant that women were “afraid of losing all their achievements over several years”, Ms Malekzay said (News, 9 March 2012). “They had opportunities to build their capacity, to get out of their house, get an education and have positions in government and NGOs, but when the Government talks about peace talks, women are afraid of losing all their achievements. If women are not empowered in society, of course it will negatively affect society as well.”
She also expressed concern about the candidacy of former militants, but spoke of hope invested in a younger generation of aspiring, educated parliamentarians. She singled out Naheed Farid, elected at the age of 27 in Herat province, a Taliban stronghold, as an inspiring example.
UN Women reports that women and girls in Afghanistan “continue to face persistent discrimination, violence, street harassment, forced and child marriage, severe restrictions on working and studying outside the home, and limited access to justice”. The overall literacy rates of women in Afghanistan is 17 per cent, but this drops to less than two per cent in some provinces.