Afghan Women Discouraged From Voting

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – "We are trying our level best to educate Afghan women on the election process. But their men seem determined to prevent them from voting on election day," says electoral officer Shahla Ghaffar Khan.

"Many women are also reluctant to register as voters because they are forbidden by their husbands or male elders in their families," adds Khan.

Khan was helping Afghan refugee women in this border city register for Saturday’s presidential election in Afghanistan in an extended four-day registration drive in Pakistan.

According to the United Nations, Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran could make up a significant 10 percent of the total vote for the presidential election.

Afghan refugees first fled to Pakistan in 1978, after a communist government seized power in Kabul. The influx mushroomed after the then Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan in December 1979, growing to more than four million in the 1980s.

In the mid-1990s, the radical Islamist Taliban faction seized control over southern Afghanistan and Kabul. Taliban offensives in northern Afghanistan in the late 1990s sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees into Pakistan and Iran and displaced large numbers of people within Afghanistan.

According to the International Organization of Migration (IOM) the drive was extended to include Monday because of voter "enthusiasm." About 1,670 registration centers, which will also serve as polling stations, have been set up in western Pakistan.

Stuart Poucher, regional head of the IOM, after the end of the four-day registration campaign told reporters here that a total of 650,000 Afghan refugees had been enrolled against the estimated 800,000.

On Sunday afternoon, Poucher had announced at a press conference that 320,000 voters, of which 25 percent were women, had been registered by the IOM.

Parveen Basheeri, who teaches at a local school here, however, paints a different picture.

"Many of the Afghan women here, though they have registered with the IOM, still don’t really know what the election is all about – let alone knowing how to cast their ballot," she tells IPS.

She accuses the male-dominated political parties of the presidential candidates of ignoring Afghan women voters in Pakistan. "It is the responsibility of the people tasked with the election campaign to impart the know-how to people regarding the casting of ballots but they’ve failed."

"Even [President] Hamid Karzai, who she said was immensely popular among the refugees living in Peshawar, had no voter education programs for women," reveals Basheeri.

U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to defeat 17 challengers for a five-year term as the country’s first popularly elected leader.

A recent survey by the Asia Foundation, a U.S.-based development agency, found that 87 percent of Afghans said that women would need to get permission from their husband or the head of the family to vote.

Eighteen percent of men surveyed said they would not let their wives vote at all, and in the south of Afghanistan, almost one out of every four men surveyed felt this way.

One women’s rights activist told Asia Foundation: "Only a few women will be able to exercise their own choice, the educated ones. [Most women say] we should obey our husbands, and if we go against them, it will be a sin."

Another election worker, quoted in the report, said she knew women who would not be able to vote because their families will not allow them. She said: "Some of the women said to the [election] workers, ‘You gave us cards, but we are not sure if our families will let us go.’"

According to Human Rights Watch, an important sign of progress for Afghanistan has been the large numbers of women registered to vote in many parts of the country.

But the U.S.-based human rights group warned in a report released Tuesday that widespread intimidation of women and general insecurity threaten women’s right to vote freely in the Oct. 9 presidential elections, stand for political office and fully participate in public life.

The 39-page report, "Between Hope and Fear: Intimidation and Threats Against Women in Public Life in Afghanistan," details how warlord factions, the Taliban and various insurgent groups attack and harass women government officials, election workers, journalists and women’s rights activists.

A pervasive atmosphere of fear persists for women involved in politics and women’s rights in Afghanistan, despite significant improvements in women’s lives since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, said Human Rights Watch in a statement.

A women’s rights activist threatened in a northern province told Human Rights Watch: "They called me on my mobile, saying, ‘You are doing things you should not. We will kill you as an example to other women.’"

"Many Afghan women risk their safety if they participate in public life," said LaShawn R. Jefferson, executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in the statement.

"Since the ousting of the Taliban, women’s lives in Afghanistan have undoubtedly improved," said Jefferson. "But now it’s the warlords who are actively trying to keep women from exercising their rights."

Baseera, a 25-year-old Afghan refugee woman in Kacha Garhi camp near here, tells IPS she wants to vote, though she thinks her ballot would make little difference in the larger scheme of things in her homeland.

Like many Afghan refugees in Pakistan, she is a Pashtun and can relate to presidential favorite Karzai – who is also from the same tribe.

"We do not know any other candidate except Hamid Karzai. He is the only ray of hope for the war-battered Afghans. Only, he can restore the much-awaited peace and tranquillity back home in Afghanistan," says Baseera.