WASHINGTON - A leading rights watchdog asked Afghan and international authorities Wednesday to take special measures to protect women running for elected office from attacks and intimidation by the Taliban and regional warlords.
The appeal from Human Rights Watch (HRW) came on the opening day of official campaigning for the country's first parliamentary and provincial elections since the Taliban regime fell in 2001.
Afghan women were repressed under the Taliban (AP)
''Women candidates in Afghanistan are courageously defying the Taliban, warlords, and conservative social norms that exclude them from public life,'' said Nisha Varia, Asia researcher in HRW's women's rights division.
''The Afghan government, election observers, and peacekeeping forces can make a difference in women candidates' safety and confidence by responding quickly to complaints of intimidation,'' she added.
Her organization urged the Afghan police and army as well as the 30,000-plus U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops deployed under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) banner to step up protection in the run up to and during the elections.
HRW, in a report it said it based on dozens of interviews with women candidates and election workers over the past month, said a number of challenges confront Afghanistan's 575 women candidates, out of a total of 5,800 contenders.
These include a pervasive atmosphere of fear said to persist despite significant improvements in women's lives since the Taliban fell. In the south and the east of the country, Taliban forces have reemerged and are trying to disrupt the elections, while in other areas local militia commanders seek to influence election results and intimidate voters and women candidates, who often are not aligned with parties, HRW said.
''There are two main threats around the polls: warlords who want to dominate the elections through any means necessary and ... the increasingly active Taliban, who have pledged to disrupt the election process itself,'' said Varia.
The watchdog's pleas came against the backdrop of rising violence and warnings that the Sep. 18 elections for parliament's lower chamber and for provincial councils likely will draw more threats and intimidation compared to last year's presidential elections because there is more local power at stake and more candidates are in play.
Recent months have seen the shooting of a female election worker, the murder of a woman accused by the Taliban of being an American spy, and the assassination of six pro-government clerics, ''likely by the Taliban,'' according to HRW.
The watchdog faulted the international community's failure to plug a gap in Afghanistan's election budget and to provide adequate security throughout the country, saying this might harm women's participation during the campaign period and at the polls.
''Public outreach is often much riskier for women candidates. They encounter greater barriers than men if they choose to print their photographs on campaign posters, travel to conservative rural areas, or deliver public speeches,'' said Varia. ''Unfortunately, the lack of security means that many women candidates may curtail their campaigning.''
Under Afghanistan's constitution and election laws, 25 percent of seats in parliament's lower house, known as the Wolesi Jirga, and in provincial councils are reserved for women.
Approximately 12 percent of the candidates for the Wolesi Jirga, 328 out of 2707, are women, however, and only eight percent of the candidates for the provincial councils--247 out of a total 3025--are women, the group added.
In southern and eastern provinces with high levels of insecurity and resurgent Taliban forces, five reserved seats for women in provincial councils will stay empty because of a lack of women candidates, it said.
''Four years ago, the United States, Britain, and their allies pledged to support Afghan women in their struggle to reclaim their rights after the fall of the Taliban, and to provide a supportive environment for them to do so,'' the HRW report said.
''Prompt action by Afghan and international actors in the next month can foster a more secure environment so that women candidates may campaign with greater confidence.''
Last month, HRW urged Afghan authorities to bring to justice alleged war criminals holding top government posts, and that steps be taken to bar human rights abusers from official positions.
Many high-level officials and advisors in Afghanistan's current government are implicated in major war crimes and human rights abuses that took place in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the organization said.
Although some of the perpetrators had died or gone into hiding, many leaders implicated in the abuses now serve as officials in Afghanistan's defense and interior ministries or are advisors to President Hamid Karzai, HRW said.
Some are running for office in next month's parliamentary and local elections. Others operate as warlords or regional strongmen directing subordinates in official positions, the watchdog said.
HRW's reports come as the Karzai government struggles to extend its authority and to bring some sense of national purpose and unity to the country's disparate provinces, rival warlords, and intensely antagonistic political factions.
Dozens of mid-level officials from the Taliban, which eventually filled the post-Najibullah vacuum and ruled from 1996 until being ousted by U.S.-led troops in 2001, have agreed to cooperate with government programs to rebuild the war-ravaged country.
Despite such gains, however, recent months have seen a marked upswing in Taliban attacks and U.S. retaliation across southern Afghanistan. More than 700 people on all sides have been killed in suicide bombings, assassinations, and extensive battles, according to U.S. and Afghan estimates.
Even so, Karzai and other senior officials have voiced hope that dialogue can diminish, if not dismantle, Afghanistan's insurgency.
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