The latest Peace Brief published by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) highlights the challenges – and opportunities – facing Afghan women in the upcoming Wolesi Jirga parliamentary elections on September 18. Although women account for half of the country’s population and on paper possess equal electoral rights, in reality they are up against a number of factors that hamper their political participation. Physical insecurity remains one key obstacle that threatens the rights of all Afghans. Yet, women in particular have to deal with social and cultural constraints that limit their participation.
For instance, many Afghan women feel that they need explicit permission from their husbands to vote or to run for office. They often have a hard time registering to vote because in culturally conservative communities women are not allowed to interact with unrelated men – including voter registration officials. A practice of proxy voting, where when a man fills out voting ballots on behalf of the female members of his family, is also a common social norm.
The USIP suggests a number of practical solutions that can improve women’s participation in the September elections. They include: having enough trained women to staff all female polling stations and increase the number of neutral female observers; providing more effective voter education and outreach focused on women; working with the male community and religious leaders to convince them that female voting does not have to violate social norms; empowering women’s networks and enhancing female candidates’ abilities to campaign for office; introducing more transparency through gender-specific voting statistics; and involving women early on in election planning and implementation.
All those are very important and urgent steps that need to be taken to ensure the fairness of the upcoming election. But in the longer term, improving women’s political participation is just one side of the empowerment coin – economic participation is as important. It must start with education and programs such as CIPE’s Tashabos, where girls and boys alike can learn the principles of entrepreneurship and overcome stereotypes that hamper women’s participation in the economy. It continues through supporting and training women’s business associations and organizations such as Afghan Women’s Business Federation that represent women entrepreneurs and advocate on their behalf. Together with greater political participation, women’s economic empowerment can provide the necessary means to effectively engage Afghanistan’s 15 million women into reconstruction and development of their country.