Amid the blight that is Afghanistan's ongoing election fraud scandal, there is a bright spot: the August presidential and provincial council elections showed that more Afghan women than ever participated in the political process.
The Washington-based National Democratic Institute tracked female participation in all aspects of the August 20 elections. Its findings were discussed during a Washington, DC, September 18 presentation, titled Afghanistan: The Participation of Women in the 2009 Elections. NDI confirmed that women constituted roughly 10 percent of provincial council candidates (326 out of 3,196 overall candidates). The 326 figure this year represented a roughly 15 percent increase in women candidates running from the 2005 elections. NDI's findings were based on interviews with 18 selected female candidates in the provincial council elections.
"I don't think that there is any doubt that, since the end of Taliban rule, Afghan women have made significant progress in political participation," said Raissa Tatad-Hazell, NDI Senior Program Manager for Asia, who oversaw many of NDI's local projects. "But I think there is also no doubt that there have been, and continue to be, so many challenges to promoting women's equitable participation in all these processes."
In terms of casting ballots, turnout among women was strong, with the highest in the northern and central regions of the country. Nevertheless, instability discouraged many women from going to the polls, especially in traditional Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
Kristin Haffert, NDI Director for Women's Political Participation Programs, said some women successfully avoided having their fingers marked with ink so that the Taliban would not know they had voted. While that certainly helped shield some women from possible reprisals, it also opened one of apparently many doors for electoral irregularities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The government may have unwittingly facilitated fraud by not requiring females to have photographs on their ID cards. Haffert related reports of fraud in which underage girls wearing burkas improperly cast ballots without having their identities verified. Tatad-Hazell and Haffert were the featured speakers during the NDI presentation.
Even though Afghanistan's presidential vote occurred more than a month ago, the country remains gripped by uncertainty about the election's outcome. Responding to evidence of massive fraud, the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission has ordered a widespread recount of ballots. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Given that a disproportionately large number of ballots being reviewed appear to have been cast for incumbent President Hamid Karzai, the likelihood of a presidential run-off vote is growing. According to election officials, Karzai received 55 percent of the vote, a total sufficient to avoid a run-off. That percentage, however, seems likely to be downwardly revised by a recount. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite numerous civic education initiatives carried out by international organizations and local non-governmental groups to address gender inequalities in the electoral process, women continue to face daunting obstacles in the political arena. "We're coming up against decades of oppression, social stigmas, [and adverse] societal conditions," Tatad-Hazell said. "Most women still lack the skills required to actually present themselves as candidates."
At the local level, many female candidates have low levels of education and are often illiterate. In Haffert's view, "women [in the 2009 vote] really were dependent on men for every step of their campaigning," from securing initial permission to run to obtaining financial resources and other support from male community leaders.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.