Armed guards are stationed at poster

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–On a hot summer’s day early this month, the loya jirga, or grand council, here in the capital was buzzing with activity.

Women–students, professionals and activists–milled around, exchanging stories, ideas and laughter, readying themselves for the fusion of two voter turnout efforts: The 5 Million Women Campaign and the 50 Percent Campaign.

The two campaigns, one focused on demanding the government secure women’s right to vote and the other on ending discrimination and ensuring women’s participation, came together in the face of worries that few women would make it to their polling places.

The activists face what are widely considered extreme difficulties.

While Thursday’s elections are sometimes hailed as another step in Afghanistan’s slow march towards democracy, a large section of the country’s women were in danger of being disenfranchised through a combination of increasing violence and a resurgence of conservative attitudes inhibiting women’s political involvement.

The elections occur in the bloodiest phase of an eight-year conflict. The war has caused a 24 percent increase in the number of civilian casualties in the first seven months of 2009 compared with the same period a year ago, according to July 31 U.N. report that says actual deaths may be much higher due to difficulties collecting information.

Large Areas Off Limits

Large areas of the country are categorized as either under enemy control or at high risk for attack by insurgents. An official map obtained by Reuters in April showed half the country in this situation. Since then security has worsened, especially in the week before the elections with militants carrying out several targeted strikes in Kabul. Violence spread throughout the nation on election day, including a rocket attack, killing at least two women.

Voter registration did not take place in several districts because of the presence or control of the Taliban. The government officially admitted that 8 of the country’s 364 districts were under Taliban control, but polling may not have taken place or may be severely compromised in many more.

While the increasing insecurity affects all voters, women are likely to be far more severely impacted, says Leeda Yaqoobi, deputy director of Afghan Women’s Network, the umbrella organizations of over 70 women’s groups that organized the loya jirga meeting.

“Security is one of the major problems that prevents women from voting on election day,” she told Women’s eNews.

In addition to the generally violent atmosphere, women’s rights advocates worry about targeted attacks on women in the public sphere.

“Women participating in public life face threats, harassment and attacks,” a July 8 U.N. report on violence in Afghanistan found, and contributed to an effective imprisonment of women in their homes.

Local Traditions Also Blamed

Despite a tendency to blame violence against women on the Taliban, the July report says women in public life have also been targeted by “local traditional and religious power holders, their own families and communities and, in some instances, by government officials.”

In Thursday’s provincial council elections, not enough female candidates were found to fill the 25 percent quota for women.

In Kandahar, for example, three women were running for the four reserved seats. None of these candidates was able to either live or campaign in the province because of the threats to them, according to the chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

A joint verification exercise of political rights carried out by this commission and the U.N. mission in Afghanistan found “women’s right to vote appears to be at risk in insecure areas.”

Days before the election, despite several months of preparatory time, the country’s Independent Election Commission had not been able to locate women to staff many of the polling booths in at least 8 of the 34 provinces in the country. It was sending out desperate appeals.

Without female staff at polling booths to assist and frisk women voters–a necessary security precaution–many women were likely to be unable to cast their votes.

Dangerous Travel Required

Polling booths in many of the insecure areas were also likely to be moved, forcing voters to traverse large distances through insecure territory, a hurdle more likely to discourage women.

In culturally conservative parts of Afghanistan women still are still required to have permission from their families to leave their home; participation in the election often is not considered appropriate.

In some parts of the country this has been legally enshrined by the new Shia Personal Status Law signed by President Hamid Karzai in mid-July. Among other things, that law–governing the minority Shia Muslim community–makes it illegal for a woman to vote without her husband’s permission, if custom dictates.

Vote tallies on Tuesday are unlikely to reflect the full extent of women’s disenfranchisement. In conservative areas, men cast the votes of the women in their families, a practice that is accepted by polling staff in deference to the conservative attitudes.

“We will of course give our votes (voter registration cards) to the men,” a young Pashtun woman in the eastern province of Nangarhar, bordering Pakistan, recently told Women’s eNews. “We do not have permission to go out to vote.”

Firebrand parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai fears such “proxy voting’ may have been widespread. “This is a concern, that in the name of women, men may vote,” she said in an interview in Kabul.

In some areas the registration of women did not require photographic identity cards, creating the opportunity for massive forgery of registration cards, says Martine van Biljert, an analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, a think-tank based in Berlin.

Biljert, who has spent several years working in Afghanistan, says “the absence of a credible voter registry, or any other reliable form of registry, and the lack of effective safeguards against multiple registrations has greatly facilitated the widespread incidence of multiple and proxy voting.”

In the parliamentary elections of 2005, high female turnout was initially hailed as a sign of progress, but later attributed to the kind of fraud that may have been repeated on Thursday.

Women’s ability to vote is expected to have varied widely, depending on local conditions.

In the village of Langarkhel in the Pashtun belt of Nangarhar province, for instance, no women were visible in the campaign rallies when presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah came to visit. However the provincial council candidate Abdullah Arsala, said a meeting of male village elders had decided that women could be allowed to vote.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who has reported on the South Asian region for 18 years.

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