“It should not only be in words that we say women comprise 50 percent of the society," said Muhammad Yosuf Nooristani, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission. The country must “really give them the chance to participate.” Nooristani made these comments at a USIP-sponsored national conference in Kabul this week that gathered more than 220 women leaders in civil society to discuss the upcoming presidential and provincial elections scheduled for April 5.

Equality for Peace and Democracy conference panel
Photo Credit: Equality for Peace and Democracy

The Afghan non-governmental organization Equality for Peace and Democracy organized the event, called “Women and Elections,” on February 4-5, with support from USIP’s Center for Gender and Peacebuilding and participation by the Institute’s Afghanistan program and its Kabul office. The groundbreaking two-day dialogue brought women activists from throughout Afghanistan to define what they expect from their prospective future president. A successful election will determine who will succeed President Hamid Karzai, who became head of state in December 2001, after the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban regime. He was formally elected president in 2004 and will reach the end of his constitutionally limited two terms this year.

All eleven candidates agreed to participate either personally or with a vice presidential representative to make their pitches and answer questions, in a striking demonstration of accountability and transparency in the democratic processes leading to the Afghan national elections. USIP runs extensive programs to strengthen the role of women in conflict zones, and also has made it a priority for more than a year to support civil society’s efforts toward a peaceful, successful 2014 election that would ease the transition once most U.S. and other NATO-led troops leave Afghanistan at the end of this year.

At the conference, candidates expressed support for implementing measures to increase women’s participation and influence in the upcoming election, as evidenced by presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

“Our job is not to create [a] voice for the women of Afghanistan,” Ahmadzai told the conference. “Our job is to respond to the legitimate demands of Afghan women.” Candidates also brought up the importance of the passage of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, although ideas for ratification or successful implementation were not clear.

The “Women and Elections” conference provided an unparalleled opportunity for civil society and government representatives to convene in a neutral setting to discuss women’s concerns, challenges, and opportunities surrounding the candidates’ political manifestos. During a panel session with government ministry officials on Feb. 4, women raised key concerns, including their own security at the polls and the role of men in their families in limiting women’s participation in electoral processes. In a plenary session, a clear message emerged from several women activists and leaders that one of the main reasons for their success was the support from their families, specifically from male family members, in their education and in granting them opportunities to succeed.

Participants also expressed concern about fraud in the 2009 presidential election and the potential for it to recur this time. Featured speakers included Amrullah Saleh, a political leader and former head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security; Sima Simar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and a former minister of women’s affairs; Fatima Gilani, president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, a humanitarian organization; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative Ján Kubiš; and Scott Smith, USIP’s director for Afghanistan and Central Asia. The conference featured panel remarks by representatives from the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Public Health, and the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, as well as the Afghan Independent Election Commission, the Afghan Independent Complaints Commission, and the United Nations.

USIP sponsored the conference as a part of the third stage of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project focused on increasing young Afghan women’s civic engagement and political participation in preparation for the upcoming presidential election and beyond. The organizer, EPD, is USIP’s in-country, non-governmental partner.

Previously, regional dialogues for Afghanistan were held in Kabul in September 2013 for women from southern provinces and in Mazar-e Sharif in December 2013 for women from northern provinces. Those regional dialogues focused on identifying the major obstacles to women’s participation in elections broadly and highlighted the expectations of women from the next Afghan government. This week’s national conference then honed in on the April 5 presidential election.

The events are part of the USIP Center for Gender and Peacebuilding’s work on “Lessons Learned and Best Practices on Women’s Programming in Transitioning Countries,” which was initiated in 2011.  Among the conclusions that have emerged is the need to conduct such dialogues among women on issues important to their countries as a whole. The Center regularly convenes a working group in Washington D.C. made up of representatives of the U.S. government, international non-governmental organizations, and foreign diplomats of countries doing similar work, along with U.S. congressional staff and members of the U.S. military to discuss ways to strengthen the effectiveness of women’s programs in post-conflict and transitioning countries.

Nicoletta Barbera is a senior program assistant in USIP’s Center for Gender & Peacebuilding. Steve Steiner, a gender advisor in the center; Casey Garret Johnson, a program officer for South and Central Asia for USIP in Kabul; and Reyhaneh Hussaini in Kabul, also contributed to this report.

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