With only three days before presidential and provincial council elections in Afghanistan, the Independent Election Commission is sending out desperate appeals. In nearly a quarter of the country's provinces, despite repeated pleas, the Afghan institution charged with managing the elections has been unable to recruit enough women to staff polling stations. Female staff members are necessary for searching women coming to vote, an essential part of the security matrix in polling stations across the country. Unless they are recruited -- rapidly -- in many areas women may be unable to cast their vote.
The possible disenfranchisement of a substantive section of the country's population is more than a mere logistical concern. Increasing insecurity, including violence specifically targeted at women, as well as conservative attitudes, may combine to prevent many women from entering polling booths on August 20.
Despite certain advances in women's rights, especially in some urban areas, women are facing increasing levels of retributive violence for participating in Afghanistan's public space. Threats, attacks and even high profile assassinations have sent a clear warning to women to curb their participation in public activities. The result, said the UN in a recent report, is that the "pattern of attacks against women operating in the public sphere sends a strong message to all women to stay at home. [. . .] The effective imprisonment of women in their homes in an electoral period raises additional concerns" about the legitimacy of the forthcoming elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On the surface, it appears woman have made great gains since elections were last held in 2004. This time, there are more female candidates contesting for provincial council seats. But in southern provinces such as Kandahar and Uruzgan, despite the fact that 25 percent of the seats are reserved for female delegates, there are not enough female candidates to fill the quota.
In Kandahar Province, where the incumbent president's brother Ahmad Wali Karzai heads the provincial council, there are just three female candidates, despite four seats set aside for women. According to Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the three women "cannot live there because of the insecurity." Elsewhere, she said, there are examples of female candidates whose families and communities, opposed to their candidacy, forbid them to campaign. A joint monitoring exercise conducted by the AIHRC and UNAMA (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) found that community leaders in some provinces had called upon people not to vote for female candidates.
Initially, observers touted the high rates of female voter registration, especially in conservative areas, as a sign that liberal democratic values were taking root. The reality is somewhat different, however. Often, male family members not only register the women in the family, but also vote for them, especially in conservative areas where women traditionally are not allowed to appear in public, something that was reported by international and national observer missions in past elections.
The system of proxy voting appears likely to be repeated in the current elections, said the feisty female parliamentarian and champion of women's rights Shukriya Barakzai. "This is our concern. Our legal right to vote may be taken away. Women's voter cards are not required to have photographs. So the male members of the family can use them," she told EurasiaNet.
In the village of Sarkot in conservative Nangarhar Province's Sherzad District, on the Pakistani border, this female EurasiaNet correspondent was invited to visit the home of the largest landowning family, the local power brokers. Over 20 women of voting age live in this large extended family, but queried on whether or not they will vote, they do not comprehend the question until it is repeated several times.
"Of course not. We will give our votes to the [male] elders in the family and they will cast them," said a young woman. "We don't have permission to leave our homes for the polling station," she added.
Despite concerns about the participation of women, female activists are not sitting by idly. On August 4, between 1200 and 1500 female activists launched 'The 50 Percent Campaign' and the 'Five Million Campaign' in Kabul's Loya Jirga -- Grand Council -- tent, where equal rights for Afghan women were written into the country's constitution in 2004.
The idea is to boost female turnout.
Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a female rights activist who mobilized women from the eastern provinces for the campaign launch, is hopeful. "Yes there is insecurity. But I think people will put this to one side and come out to vote, because the voting is about a democratic transition of power and we have all experienced the violence of a non-democratic transition. You can see how 1500 women came together the morning after Kabul had a series of rocket attacks while the internationals stayed indoors," she said.
The activists have certainly managed to put women's issues higher on the agenda of some prominent candidates. While most campaigns scarcely mentioned women at first, this week prominent challengers Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah took time off from their busy campaigns to participate in a discussion on women's rights hosted by an Afghan activist, Mahbouba Seraj. Missing from the platform was the incumbent president.
The government's lack of support has not gone unnoticed by the female activists. In the Loya Jirga tent where a photograph of Karzai looms large, the activists first tried to remove the image. Unsuccessful, they asked media outlets not to include the portrait of the president in their footage or photographs. "We don't want him using our event to get votes," said an activist. "We want the government to ensure our security so that we can go out and vote."
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.