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Elections Alone Won’t Help Afghan Women

by Kavita Ramdas

Five years ago, before the last and first democratic elections in Afghanistan, I visited Afghan women's groups that operated underground schools for girls under the Taliban. Enveloped in a crowd of women and girls, we sang Bollywood songs on the dusty streets of Kabul and discussed their hopes and plan to vote in the 2004 elections.

In 2009, the mood is grim. Women have been forced out of polling stations; suicide bombings and acid attacks against school girls, once unknown in Afghanistan are now commonplace; and each day is one of survival. Although women make up 35 percent of the 15 million registered voters, most are unlikely to vote in the violent climate that has besieged Afghanistan. With Taliban death threats to those with an ink-stained thumbprint, few, men or women, dare vote.

After five years, $30 billion in aid, and the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, the situation in Afghanistan, especially for women, has turned from a place of promise to one of darkness. It is time to re-evaluate the international community's militarized approach in Afghanistan.

While the Obama administration's recent shift in military strategy towards increasing the protection of Afghan civilians is encouraging, it begs the broader question of whether top-down military interventions from the global North are the best means towards securing lasting peace in Afghanistan. Unless we are willing to question whether violence can truly be used to end violence, it is unlikely that this election will change anything in Afghanistan. It will not bestow legitimacy on Karzai nor is it likely to bring greater security and safety to ordinary Afghans.

Even the tired Western trope of charging in to "rescue" Afghan women from the clutches of their "oppressive" culture and their "tribal" menfolk has lost its sheen. That narrative collapses under the weight of the fact that pro-government NATO bombs that kill one in three civilians. Afghans also remember their history. They know that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were networks recruited, armed and trained by US Special Forces and the CIA. Ordinary people are the victims, caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and the West's precision drones that leave villages in towns with countless orphaned and maimed children and widows.

As President of a foundation advancing the rights of women in over 160 countries, I know about the suffering women endure in conflict zones. Add to that tinderbox a depressed economy, and violence against women and girls explodes. Where there are armed soldiers, women's bodies will be bought and sold.

Today Afghan women are tired of broken promises and of living in a land overrun by foreigners. Women parliamentarians like Malalai Joya write, "the longer foreign troops stay in Afghanistan doing what they are doing, the worse the eventual civil war." Afghan women laugh outright at the argument that further militarization of their society will bring them peace and security. They have seen the rise in "insurgent" violence alongside increased foreign military troops.

Tragically, Afghan women are not talking about transformation as they did in the heady summer of 2004, when bright-eyed teachers at the Afghan Institute of Learning dreamed of re-planting orchards in the Panjshir valley. Even the bravest and most resolute Afghan women - teachers, journalists, activists, elected officials who withstood years of Taliban rule - speak wearily and warily of survival. "We want our daughters to get to school safely and we hope women candidates stay alive through these elections".

Afghan women believe theirs is a nation that has far too many missiles, aircraft, and automatic weapons and far too few medical clinics, schools, and libraries. Women building peace in Afghanistan agree with President Obama on the need for some military presence in this volatile situation-but not without a clear timetable for withdrawal and more investments to build the country's infrastructure. What is most urgently needed now are not more military troops, but troops of trained Afghan midwives, doctors, horticulturalists, scientists, engineers, teachers, and entrepreneurs. Although many Afghan women will be stopped from voting in these elections, their voices will not be silenced.

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