Presidential vote: 2 months and counting
Off to the Races
Casey Garret Johnson and Reyhaneh Hussaini
Two days after the start of the officia
l campaign period, the United States Institute of Peace sponsored a conference that brought together over 220 women from all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces to press presidential candidates (like front running contender Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai above) on their policies and positions; and to demand answers from
electoral commissioners and security officials on protections for female voters when the nation goes to the polls on April 5.
For presidential hopefuls, this was one of the first events in which they faced direct questions from a live audience. Attendees pulled no punches, pressing candidates to outline not only what proposals they had to increase the n
umber of women in the work fo
rce, but also on issues like corruption – a problem common to all Afghans and key driver of government weakness.
The two-day event was orga
nised by the Afghan civil society organization, Equality for Peace and Democracy, headed by Nargis Nehan. “This is the first year in which women are not just talking about going to vote, but about monitoring the polls and being involved in the entire democratic process–questioning candidates, civic education, all aspects,” Nehan said.
In a sign of the small but growing acceptance of women in the public sphere – as well as the youthful nature of the Afghan media – Nehan gave a solo press conference following the event to a pack of 20- something national journalists. Above, Nehan makes last-minute annotations of the text of USIP Afghanistan and South-Central Asia Director Scott Smith’s opening remarks to the conference held in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel.
Direct interaction between female constituents and candidates and the ability to question elections officials is fundamental to the democratic process. A women’s rights activist (top) cornersIndependent Elect
oral Commission Chairman Yousef
Nuristani, as he leaves the podium.
The IEC and the Ministry of Interior announced at the conference a plan to hire 13,000 women to search female voters entering
polling stations. These searchers will be
trained by 700 female Afghan National Police. In order to make this plan acceptable in a culturally conservative society such as Afghanistan, the MOI will also hire an addition 13,000 mehrams (or male escorts) who will accompany the women to the polling sites while they perform their duties.
Unable to ignore the demographic weight of the female vote, and perhaps with a better understanding that women may not simply vote as their husb
ands tell them, the conference drew notable presidential candidates in addition to Ashraf Ghani Ahamdzai, including Daud Sultanzoi, Qayyum Karzai (top), the brother of president Karzai, and Qutbudin H
alal (above), a Hizb-i-Islami par
ty member -- seen as one of the more conservative candidates.
Not surprisingly, all of the candidates supported passage of
theEVAW Law – though none could offe
r any concrete ideas on how to get it ratified by parliament or uniformly implemented. Candidates were also asked if they did indeed believe in women’s rights, why their w
ives were not campaigning by their sides? A question that drew uneasy and incomplete responses.
In addition to the candidates, the conference drew leading women’s rights advocates and government officials including Sima SamarChairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, flanked by Minister of Public Health,
Surya Dalil (left), and Shafiqa Habiba, a pioneering female broadcaster with Radio Television Af
Below, Najla Ayubi, the deputy director of The Asia Foundation-Afghanistan, moderated a panel that included Jan Kubis the UN Special Represent
ative to the Secretary General before
giving an interview to a national television station.
Speaking to USIP, Ayubi was hopeful about both the elections and women’s role in them. “Because of the continued presence of the international community, it forces the candidates to take women into account–even if this is short term and fragile, it is still positive. But the fact that the management of the elections is, for the first time, in the hands of the Afghans, is actuall
y a positive for women in this country
“The fact that the MOI can at leas
t articulate a plan to put women at polling stations in an official capacity is historic. At the end of the day though it is women who need to decide internally how far they are willing to push for their rights. This doesn’t stop with the elections of course. Going forward we need programs that address and build the self confidence of women -- political confidence, se
curity confidence–I mean long term me
ntoring with young women on how to raise their voices….
“But in the end there will always be risk. You can’t escape the risk. For me, I always end up being overconfident. I have personally lost a lot over the years. And I knew I would. I know I’ll still lose. But I’ve also learned that if you want to gain something you better be prepared to lose.”
all photos Casey Garret Johnson, February 2014
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