Afghanistan: Counting women's presence
The Women's Reservation Bill has been pending for nearly nine years in the Indian Parliament. Yet, Afgha-nistan - which has a track record of some of the lowest human development indices for women - will have more than 25 per cent seats reserved for women when it goes to the polls on September 18 (2005) for both Parliament and the provincial councils (the equivalent of India's state assemblies).
While it is true that the presidential style of governance, and the absence of a Parliament, have made it possible to push through a law that might otherwise not have secured consensus, Afghanistan can still be justly proud of this achievement. As it can be proud of the fact that equality between men and women is enshrined in its Constitution, adopted in 2004.
Afghanistan has adopted the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system. This means that the woman candidate who polls the highest number of votes among the women candidates in her province will go to Parliament - even if she polls well below the men contesting from the constituency.
The road to Parliament, however, is not easy for women. The law notwithstanding, religious conservatives have no compunctions about openly opposing women's right to participate in the elections. Or in issuing dire threats and warnings to anyone who dares defy this edict. An unspoken question before Afghanistan's voters, therefore, is: Will these women remain symbolic ciphers in Parliament or will they be able to have their voices heard?
The statistical indicators that define the status of women in Afghanistan do not offer much hope: Every 30 minutes, a woman in Afghanistan dies of pregnancy-related complications. The maternal mortality ratio is 1600 per 100,000 live births. The literacy level of women is 14.1 per cent; well below the male literacy rate of 43.2 per cent. Half as many girls enrolls in school as boys. Women still get sold into marriage to pay off a drug debt. Young girls get forced into marriage, often the second or third wives of men old enough to be their grandfathers. Women die as a result of domestic violence. In capital Kabul alone, 50,000 women are widows and heads of households.
Although the Taliban's treatment of women was the most visible sign of their oppression, they were only an extreme manifestation of the patriarchal, misogynist social structures that have existed in Afghanistan and continue to be practiced fairly widely. It is a common myth that the advent and removal of Taliban was the beginning and end of women's oppression. Even the Panjshir area, where the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance operated, was and is one of the most conservative areas. While urban educated women in Kabul have had freedom at varying points of time, depending on who the ruler has been, women in most parts of Afghanistan have not experienced any such liberation.
Commenting on the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in a 2003 report, Amnesty International stated: "At the moment, [the system] is more likely to violate the rights of women than protect and uphold their rights." Even now there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to demonstrate this. In this context, what is the likelihood that women will be recognised as legitimate representatives of the people? Not high and certainly not without a fight. Recognising this reality, civil society groups, NGOs working with women and the Ministry of Women's Affairs are all making efforts to arm women candidates. Not with the guns, grenades and ammunition that their male counterparts have used all these years, but with the powerful weapons of information and networking.
In the first step of its kind, at least 50 women candidates from different provinces met in a hotel room in Kabul in August (2005). This Afghan Women's Network (AWN) initiative provided them with a platform to exchange views, share problems and get to know each other. Shirin Sahani, consultant with AWN, described the meeting as the first step in setting up an advocacy commission that would work to bring candidates together and link them to civil society groups as well as business houses that could fund them.
Afifa Azim, a coordinator of the AWN, says the initiative will provide research-based information on issues relating to women's rights, health and education to help women make informed decisions. This will enable them to vote jointly on women's issues and enable them to become effective parliamentarians. "The interaction with NGOs and civil society will enable awareness-raising about women's issues and build a bridge between NGOs and the Parliament."
Minister for Women's Affairs Masooda Jalal is optimistic about the women candidates. Though her ministry is cash-strapped, she says she has used their meagre resources to advocate for women's participation in the elections. The ministry persuaded the president's office and the Ministry of Interior to write letters to all the security commanders in the provinces asking them to ensure security for the women candidates.
Jalal has also made proposals to the donor community for training women to enhance their professional capacities. Reeling off statistics on the condition of women arising out of the "traditional negative practices", Jalal says "poverty in Afghanistan has a female face". If they vote as one bloc in Parliament, she says, women can push through many issues.
One woman candidate firmly standing her ground is Sharifa Zurmati Wardak, 38, from the volatile Paktia province. Wardak, who has never left the country, saw the passage of the Soviets, the mujahideen and the Taliban in all their brutality. Working with international aid agencies, she would walk the streets of Kabul, picking up dead bodies and attending to casualties. Women, she says, have never taken to arms, or looted or killed and are, therefore, better qualified to be in Parliament.
Asked whether she may be reduced to being a symbol in Parliament, Sharifa fires up. "Do you think I will be a symbol after all this hard work? If I thought that, I would never contest. I have given my word that I will work for the people. This is a question of my dignity. After all the pain and suffering I have seen, how can I remain just a symbol?"
Women like Wardak - who have shown tremendous courage, fighting against amazing odds to stand up and be heard - have ensured that the number of women contesting the forthcoming elections stands at over 10 per cent of the total number of candidates. This is a long way for Afghan women to have come, even from as recently as the last elections (the presidential elections in October 2004), when some districts in Afghanistan could not register a single woman voter.