The simple fact that Afghans participated in the recent parliamentary elections is no small sign of their commitment to democratic values and determination to have a say in the future of their country. Despite a recent, significant increase in attacks by violent extremist groups, a deteriorating economic situation, high unemployment, increased ethnic tension, and political uncertainty, this year’s election took place with revived hopes for a peaceful political resolution to reduce violence. Two areas in particular provide cause for optimism in the war-torn country: youth participation and female representation. 

Women cheer for Habiba Sarobi, former governor of Bamian province, who ran for vice president on a leading national ticket in 2014.  (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)]
Women cheer for Habiba Sarobi, former governor of Bamian province, who ran for vice president on a leading national ticket in 2014. Photo courtesy of Bryan Denton/The New York Times.

Leading up to the parliamentary elections, the U.S. Institute of Peace took a unique approach to engage women and youth in preventing electoral violence. Working with local partners, USIP engaged communities through participatory theater. With input from USIP, local partners wrote scripts and rehearsed with youth performers before teaming up with local community organizations, as well as security and police forces, to coordinate and perform at schools, parks, and picnic areas.

Participatory Theater Challenges Cultural Barriers

Live theater encourages critical thinking and allows space for dissenting viewpoints in a relatable manner, two valuable assets in challenging public perceptions to youth participation and female representation in a country dominated by conservative cultural norms. USIP’s community theater program is doing just that at the same time the parliamentary elections saw an increase in young and female political candidates. 

While shortcomings in most other aspects of aid and development in Afghanistan have been apparent, progress in efforts to empower women—particularly given the challenging circumstances—should give hope even if the female voter registration rate decreased by 5 percent from previous elections. Despite all odds, this year women made up 16 percent of the candidates, a 3 percent increase over the 2010 parliamentary elections, and a 4 percent increase over the first post-Taliban parliamentary election in 2005.

The seven provinces (Farah, Ghor, Helmand, Kandahar, Khost, Paktia and Zabul) where the number of female candidates decreased compared to the 2010 elections are provinces with high insurgent activity. The remaining 27 provinces saw increases in the percentage of female candidates. Where minimum security requirements were met in this election, Afghan citizens showed a remarkable commitment to casting their vote. Additionally, there were more young candidates compared to previous elections.

Afghan Women Working Together

While there is a legal framework to guarantee female political representation, it is women themselves who have created networks of support in order to realize these gains in representation. Through informal dialogues for information sharing and intergenerational mentorship, women are working with each other to gain the skills needed to make these increases a long-term trend.  

The gains women have made in the electoral environment are tenuous, however, and they face many barriers in their pursuit of political roles. Some key factors include the historically masculine nature of politics, traditional restrictions on women’s mobility and public engagements, women’s lack of access to resources, and their perceived family responsibilities and reproductive role. 

Given that these cultural and historical barriers are deeply entrenched, attempts to challenge them must strike a careful balance between breaking down barriers without alienating the larger community. USIP’s participatory theater program challenges the norms that prevent youth participation and female representation while encouraging inclusivity through a fun, light-hearted, and community-driven approach. 

Applying lessons learned and best practices from USIP’s support for peaceful election campaigns in 2014, this year USIP supported students’ debates, mobile theater performances, sensitization meetings with elders and religious leaders and town hall meetings to engage women and youth by raising awareness about civic duties and responsibilities, preventing electoral violence and peaceful campaigning. The program reached out to more than 25,000 women and young people, including 1,517 religious leaders and community elders in 24 districts in seven provinces (Kabul, Kapisa, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Khost, Herat and Balkh), with 72 theater performances.

Toward a More Inclusive Society

Legal safeguards, advocacy, and women serving professionally in elected bodies appear to have caused a positive shift in men’s attitude toward women’s role in social and political spheres. In the Asia Foundation’s 2017 annual “Survey of the Afghan People,” 16.9 percent of Afghans interviewed for the survey felt men should determine who women vote for. This is a significant shift compared to the 72 percent holding this view in 2004. USIP’s participatory theater supports this trend by promoting female and youth representation in a relatable and entertaining manner.

A young man from Arghandab district in Kandahar said, “The theater performance encouraged the community to vote for someone who really deserves a position in government and doesn’t have any corrupt background. These programs dedicated to raising awareness are really helpful, particularly in communities with low literacy rates.” 

While there remain significant challenges to creating an inclusive, accountable government in Afghanistan capable of bringing lasting stability, increased youth and women’s participation as candidates show signs the country is headed in the right direction. Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the parliamentary election is the Afghan people’s commitment to democracy and their determination to be heard. There is hope that this election is the beginning of a pattern toward not only a louder, more democratic voice in government for the general public, but a more inclusive one as well. 

Wagma Yameen Zia is a senior program officer with the U.S. Institute of Peace in Kabul. Belquis Ahmadi is a senior program officer for the Institute in Washington, D.C.

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