GLOBAL NEWS | fall 2004
Normally, nation building begins once conflict ends and peace is negotiated. But Afghanistan is far from normal, and very far from functioning as a democracy that represents all its citizens, female and male.
Nation building during war isn’t working.
Most U.S. media coverage barely notices this, offering upbeat reports on a few areas of progress, neglecting the reality endured by the majority of Afghans: women.
Women cannot safely travel to voter-registration sites, because warlords and militias continue their rampant violence; their trafficking in drugs, women and children; their kidnappings and forced marriages. Statistics on Afghan women and children rank among the world’s worst, yet U.S. aid for Afghan women — in the millions — pales compared to military and government assistance — in the billions (see box).
Despite helping to form a new government, ratify a new constitution, schedule September presidential and April parliamentary elections, and build a national army and police force, women still face a battle: Meaningful equality requires the rule of law.
Political tolerance of neo-Taliban mentality has resulted in a judiciary that includes adherents of extremist Islamic ideology — the very men who will interpret constitutional laws on gender equality.
Warlords are also pushing their own candidates, and the majority of Afghans (who are moderate and independent) fear the election will be warlord-driven. Though the emerging political framework depends on the disenfranchisement of such fiefdoms, the U.S.-led military campaign relies on warlords for its fight against al- Qaeda, empowering them at the expense of the citizenry, and extending their influence on the government to a level unprecedented in Afghan history.
One upshot is that many Afghans are simply not voting — out of fear. Posters have begun appearing in the central province of Maidan Wardak. They warn Afghans — particularly women — that they “violate Islamic law” and “should ready themselves for death” if they register to vote, support the government, work with the U.N.
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) or visit the new women’s centers (which, the posters claim, are facilities “for sexual relationships”). Posters have also appeared in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and some areas of Kabul.
UNAMA had to provide armed guards to protect a female registrar in Logar province; her office was burned down after she received death threats. In late June, two Afghan women registrars traveling to Rodat were killed and 13 more people (including two children) wounded when a bomb planted in their minibus exploded in Jalalabad. Travel in the eastern and southern regions was immediately suspended for all registration teams composed of women.
Less than half the general electorate has registered, including only 700,000 out of 12 million women. At this writing, it is impossible to know how many women will run for office — or even dare vote.
Already there is discussion of closing the Women’s Ministry, post-election. The U.S. claims to have freed women from gender apartheid, though security has worsened, with Taliban-al-Qaeda attacks against women increasing. Still, the election is being hurried along by the U.S. administration, as a boast-worthy “model of success.”
Afghans cannot help noticing that the timing is convenient for the U.S. elections. For a truly democratic society based on gender equality, the urgent focus should be on basics necessary for that transformation: a campaign for civic education, security guarantees for female (and male) voters, disempowerment of warlords, and improved logistics for reaching remote areas where potential women voters are isolated. These provisions are critical for all Afghans.
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