Afghan women to miss out on vote in landmark election

Author: By Jerome Starkey in Kabul and Kim Sengupta

A desperate shortage of female staff is threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, which are the pinnacle of western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy. Strict cultural norms mean women can’t vote in male-run stations.

Women’s activists said the Independent Election Commission (IEC) needs to recruit 13,000 more women before Thursday’s elections. The IEC refused to comment on recruitment figures, but papers leaked to The Independent suggest the shortfall is much worse, at more than 42,000.

Without female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, without female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrive at those stations, conservative men across the country will ban their wives and daughters from taking part.

“If half of the population can’t participate, the election is illegitimate,” said Orzala Ashref, a director of the Afghan Women’s Network. “Without women’s votes, without women’s participation, of course the election is not going to be valid.”

“You need female staff,” said leading women’s rights activist Wazhma Frogh. “Otherwise women won’t dare go out. Their families won’t let them.”

The problem is most acute in the south east, where there are just 2,564 women on the IEC books, less than 20 per cent of the 13,400 target. In the south, they have less than half the 10,428 women required.

The IEC launched an emergency appeal through women’s rights organisations last week to try to fill the staffing gap. But in a sign of growing desperation, officials have suggested hiring old men and boys in their place.

“We are totally against this,” Ms Ashref said. “The men will tell women, ‘If you go and vote it will be men who search you’. Would women from the UK feel comfortable being searched by a man? It’s even more sensitive here. They won’t let them go.”

At Nad-e-Ali in Helmand, an area recently under Taliban control, a lack of policewomen had meant that required searches of female voters cannot be carried out. Local elders have rejected suggestions that female British troops should carry out the task.

Many men in this deeply conservative area are adamant that they will not let women from their families vote in mixed stations. Niamtullah Khan, a 57 year old farmer, said: “We are very concerned about this. Most of my neighbours are against letting women go to these places where anything can happen. I, and a few others, think we should look ahead and have change, but I would not approve of my wife, sister, or daughter going into buildings with a lot of unknown men.”

The lack of female staff has fuelled fears of proxy voting, where men vote for their entire families. Concerns were first raised in December when The Independent revealed “phantom” women voters were outnumbering men in the registration process.

New figures seen by The Independent show women registrants outnumbered men in five provinces, including Logar, Paktia and Khowst. “What’s most alarming is that those places where the female recruitment has been most difficult are the same places where there was over-registration of women,” said a senior Western diplomat.

Women’s registration cards are especially prone to fraud because unlike the men’s, they don’t include a passport picture of the owner. Photographs of bare faced women are deemed culturally unacceptable.

Britain’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said election officials were making “strenuous” efforts but he admitted: “There will be difficulties in some areas of the country in women casting their vote”.

The total cost of the elections is more than $220m (£130m). The IEC was only told it had to hire 28,000 searchers, including 14,000 women last month.

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