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SPECIAL REPORT: Brave Afghan Women Vote, Run for Office Amidst Violence

Media reports on the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan on Sunday were varied and scant. Generally, news accounts revealed that the election went smoothly, with “scattered” violence. Turnout was lower than expected – estimates ranged from 35 percent to 50 percent of registered voters going to the polls. The 35 percent estimate is from an NGO, FEFA (Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan), which had 6,000 to 7,000 observers around the country on Election Day, according to HRW and the New York Times.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division is running a remarkable blog (diary) with teams of researchers (mostly Afghan university students) in several regions of the country. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported, “Everyone was relieved that the elections proceeded so smoothly with little violence from warlords, and less than expected disruption from the Taliban and other anti-government forces.”

However, the bar for acceptability in terms of violence in Afghanistan has been lowered considerably. All told, seven candidates and four campaign workers were assassinated in five provinces, mostly in the Pashtun or southern areas of Afghanistan. One woman candidate from the eastern Nuristan province was seriously wounded last week while she was campaigning. On Election Day, some 12 people were killed and some 19 polling centers (out of about 6,300) were attacked with rockets or small arms fire.

Despite death threats and harassment, 328 women were among some 2,707 candidates for the lower house of Parliament, where 62 of 249 seats (25 percent) have been reserved for women. Plus, 247 women candidates (among 3,025) sought seats on provincial councils, which select delegates to the upper house, where 12 percent of the seats are reserved for women. One 26-year-old candidate from Herat told Agence France Presse, “Why should I step down? Because I am a woman? No, never … Even if I risk getting killed, I will still struggle and push my way ahead because someone must stop this stupidity.”

Only 5 provincial council seats will be empty because not enough women ran – all in the southern provinces. A few women candidates withdrew because of death threats and some 50 women candidates had to withdraw from campaign, according to the United Nations. But even in Kandahar, the southeastern province where the Taliban was strong, women ran for office.

Reports were prevalent of warlords intimidating voters, and many illiterate women voters were confused and did not know for whom to vote. Alleged war criminals, warlords, and human rights abusers were among the candidates – even former Taliban officials. HRW reported prior to the election that a climate of fear, intimidation, and cynicism surrounded the election.

There is also fear that the counting process will be disrupted. Assassination is still a strong possibility because candidates with fewer votes can replace candidates who have been killed, according to the election rules. HRW has called for a repeal of this “assassination clause.” The final tally is not expected until late October.

The Feminist Daily News Wire will continued to post updates, and Ms. magazine, in its Winter issue, will provide a reflective analysis and report with a photo essay on the role of women in the Afghan parliamentary elections.

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Media Resources: HRW Election Diary; HRW release 9/15/05; Reuters 9/19/05; Agence France Presse 9/14/05; Turkish Weekly 9/16/05; New York Times 9/14/05, 9/18/05; Washington Post 9/18/05

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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