Afghan women see next week’s election as a key to a better life, judging by a sample of potential voters queried by CARE. Women said Afghanistan’s first parliamentary vote in more than 35 years brings high hopes for more freedom and access to education. But many are still concerned about election security and the potential for former warlords to dominate the polling process.
"The government will make it so women can go outside of their house, to obtain work," said one Afghan woman, who participates in a program that assists war widows. Another commented that "life will be better, children will go to school."
But others worried about the influence of strongmen, especially in more remote parts of the country. "They are armed, rich and have influence on government officials," said one respondent.
After the disenfranchisement caused by 25 years of near-constant warfare, women are eager to make their voices heard. Many Afghan women have been widowed by conflict, with an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 war widows in the capital alone. The majority of girls and women – 86 percent -- are illiterate.
CARE works with some 10,000 widows as part of its Humanitarian Aid Program for the Women of Afghanistan (HAWA). Fazila Lily, who manages the CARE project, said the election marks an important step in the process of democratization, but not the conclusion.
"Women are willing to do their part, by voting and running for office," she said. "The government and the international community must hold up their side of the bargain, by ensuring a safe and fair election."
The weeks leading up to the elections have been marred by numerous incidents including threats to candidates, removal of campaign materials, and violence. Six candidates have been killed and a large number of candidates, including many women, have had their campaigns greatly restricted by threats. For example, a woman candidate was shot and wounded in Nuristan province last week. Another candidate in Khost Province was targeted in two separate attacks, with her brother wounded in the latest one, which occurred at her residence.
In theory, women will have a major voice in Afghanistan’s new parliament: by law, almost 30 percent of seats in provincial councils and the lower house of Parliament are reserved for women (by comparison, the U.S. House of Representatives has 15.2 percent women).
Yet for many women the thousands of election posters that mark Kabul are simply pictures of strange faces and odd symbols.
As one woman remarked, "We are illiterate, we do not have radios or TV, and so we can’t learn about the candidates."
Lily acknowledged the need for better voter education but said more needs to be done in practice to guarantee women’s participation in society.
"Without the rule of law there is no future and no safety for anyone to fulfill their roles in civil society, especially women, " said Lily. "The Afghan government and the international community must work together to ensure an end to insecurity in the country so Afghanistan can keep moving forward."