The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was today joined by Afghan officials and activists in marking International Women’s Day (8 March) at a ceremony in the capital, Kabul, in which they stressed the need for the increased participation of women in next month’s elections in order to help ensure their credibility.
“A key measure of a democracy is equal rights for all. Therefore, the participation of women will be a critical indication to judge the inclusivity and integrity of the 2014 elections,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative in the country, Nicholas Haysom, at the observance ceremony.
The Presidential and Provincial Council elections, slated for 5 April, will see ten presidential candidates and some 2,700 Provincial Council candidates in the race to replace the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and fill 420 Provincial Council (PC) seats, respectively.
The Presidential election also marks the first ever transfer of power from one elected president to another in the country’s history. While there are no women vying for the country’s top job, there are over 300 women running for PC seats.
Referring to the Security Council’s resolution 1325, which calls for greater participation of women in public life and political processes as an essential means to build peace, democracy and gender equality in a country recovering from armed conflict, Mr. Haysom said women’s participation as candidates, electoral workers, observers and voters was their democratic right.
“Allow me to emphasize – elections provide the best possible opportunity to ensure that women’s voices are heard, their concerns are addressed, and their contributions to peace and democracy are maximized. The ballot is the most powerful tool available to women,” he added.
The UNAMA official also warned that security risks could have an impact on the number of women willing to travel to polling stations and to take an active part in the elections process.
“Attempts to intimidate, harass or threaten women to discourage participation in the elections are a source of concern, must be rejected, and remedies addressed through the measures being put in place by Afghan National Security Forces,” he said.
UNAMA’s latest report on protection of civilians in armed conflict, released last month, noted that 2013 was the worst year since 2009 in terms of the number of women and children killed or injured as a result of conflict-related violence.
Mr. Haysom also read out the message of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for International Women’s Day. In it, the UN chief said that equality for women is progress for all.
“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support,” Mr. Ban said in his message.
In his comments at the observance in Kabul, the chairman of Afghanistan’s largest election observer group, ‘Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA),’ Nader Nadery, said almost all women candidates for PC seats are facing security threats in their constituencies.
Mr. Nadery highlighted the need of an organized movement that could turn “the women’s scattered vote into a collective vote bank so that women could have a stronger voice in the political future of the country and achieve their demands through legal channels.”
Addressing the same event, the spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), Noor Mohammad Noor, urged Afghan women to participate in the upcoming elections and make use of their right to vote. He, however, acknowledged that insecurity was still “the biggest challenge” for women’s participation in the elections.
Mr. Noor said that 40 per cent of the total 21,663 polling stations are specifically set aside for women “so that they can cast their vote without any difficulty.”
Another speaker at the event, the Director of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), Hasina Safi, echoed Mr. Noor’s assessment of insecurity being the main hindrance to women’s participation in the polls. However, she noted that preparations for the upcoming elections have been carried out in much improved manner compared to the last two rounds of elections in Afghanistan.
Today’s observance in Kabul was the final event in a series of observances, organized by UNAMA in collaboration with provincial authorities and civil society organizations, around the country over the past week. UNAMA offices in Kandahar, Herat and Balkh provinces organized events on Saturday, while similar events were organized in Bamyan, Laghman, Paktya and Kunduz provinces on Sunday.
Speakers at all of the events highlighted the importance of women’s active participation in the upcoming elections in order for their voices to be heard. They also underlined the need for the education of women and girls, and called for stronger mechanisms for the elimination of violence against women.
The Women’s Day observances in southern Kandahar province and eastern Laghman province also saw performances by local theatre artists, with the performances centred on women’s participation in the elections and the elimination of violence against women.
“Women’s participation in the elections is very important because they are considered the backbone of the society. Women can use their votes to elect an educated, professional, qualified and patriotic President so that Afghanistan can have a bright future,” said a student participating at the Kandahar observance, Nargis Ehsan.
The Kandahar Governor, Dr. Toryali Weesa, said practical steps are needed to prevent violence against women.
In his comments to the event, one of the co-organizers, the head of the ‘Kandahar Institute for Modern Studies,’ Ehsanullah Ehsan, called on the UN to help bring all those involved in the Afghan conflict to a negotiating table in order to end the ongoing conflict.
Speaking at the Laghman event, an official of the Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs, Shabnam Safi, said, “There is no civilization and development without women’s participation.”
In north-eastern Kunduz province, a local independent broadcaster, Khawar Radio Television, aired a talk show on the topic ‘My Right, My Vote.’
Speaking in the show, Provincial Governor Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani encouraged women to participate the upcoming polls.
“I assure all mothers and sisters that they can participate in the elections without feeling any fear. Your police, in collaboration with the people, provide the necessary security for all 218 polling sites in Kunduz,” said the Governor.
“Participation in the elections is not only a national responsibility of the women, but it is their religious obligation,” said a religious scholar and a judge from the Kunduz Appeals Court, Abdul Malik Rajabzada. “Therefore they should participate on the polling day and use their vote.”
In western Herat province, the head of the Provincial Department of Women’s Affairs, Mahboobeh Jamshidi, warned that women will be sidelined unless they participate in all political processes, including the elections.
The chief provincial prosecutor, Maria Bashir, said that Afghan women have come a long way since 2001 and, despite challenges, “they won’t retreat.”
Speaking at the observance held in central Bamyan province, the head of the Provincial Women’s Affairs Department, Fatima Kazemi, said, “By participating actively in the upcoming elections, we (women) can show our strength and prove that without involving half of the population there will be no improvements and progress.”
In her comments, an activist, Shukria Nida, said providing education to girls can be a solution to most of the social problems.
“Education is the only cure of our problems,” said Ms. Nida, “let’s educate each other; only through education we can bring change; through education we can change the behaviour of men towards us; we can eliminate violence through education; and through education we will know our rights and we will know how to defend them.”
In a joint news release issued for International Women’s Day on Friday, the UN system in Afghanistan expressed its recommitment to help improve gender equality and women’s empowerment in the country.
In the joint statement, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Ján Kubiš, also highlighted the important role that women play in society, especially in light of the country’s upcoming elections.
“Substantial participation of women in the upcoming elections is critical to the credibility and inclusiveness of the process,” said Mr. Kubiš, while noting that there are continuing trends of violations of women's rights – including brutal attacks, targeted killings of high-profile female