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14 August 2009

The Afghanistan Election: An interview with a local team member

Elections will be held in Afghanistan on August 20 to choose provincial council members and a national president. For various reasons, many Afghans take little interest in the elections. Many are burdened with problems of their own. Many women who can’t even choose their own husbands can’t grasp the concept of choosing a president. And many believe that the United States has already fixed the presidential election in favor of the incumbent Hamid Karzai. They see the election as an exercise in futility. Ann Jones, an american jounalist spoke to a local team member of medica mondiale Afghanistan.

medica mondiale: As the election draws near, what are the expectations of Afghan women?

Local team member*: Afghan women, including me, have the hope that after the election, in the new government, the position of women and our participation in political life will be strengthened. Actually we have many expectations because women’s rights have been so violated by the current government. In the future we want to raise our issues, and we want our issues to be considered. We want a new government to confirm women’s rights.

Are you optimistic about that result?

Unfortunately we don’t have a positive view about the future. I personally think that the Afghan people have many years ahead before we have a free and fair election.  In my view we are very far from real democratization. Our main worry now is security. If the election were held today there would be some secure pockets where democratic voting could take place, and vast areas of insecurity where people are unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote freely and without fear.

In addition, every evening now we can see some of the candidates on television introducing themselves to the voters. They talk about the problem of security, and they talk about the economy.  But no one talks about women’s rights or issues of concern to women. It’s clear that they want to appeal to conservative voters who have old-fashioned ideas about women’s place in society.  But if no one even speaks of women’s rights, how can they be achieved?


Do you have any other concerns?

One thing that is astonishing to the Afghan people is the composition of the Independent Election Commission. It is called “independent,” but all of those who work on the commission were selected by the current government. With all the talk of widespread corruption in government, Afghans naturally worry about the fairness and transparency of the election process.

In regard to women, we must be very concerned that during the last two years women have been moving backward. Laws meant to guarantee our rights and protect us from violence are not enforced. Women’s rights are disregarded. A good example is the recent passage of the Shia Personal Status Law, a law so offensive to women’s rights that it had to be withdrawn thanks to international pressure and the bravery of Afghan women who organized to fight against it. I was among a group of women’s advocates who carried our protest three times to the president.  We were sent back and forth from this minister to that. We were promised this and that. But the government would not acknowledge that this law contradicts our constitution, our laws, and our rights. They tried to push it through, without proper procedures, without transparency, without the slightest respect for women and our constitutional rights. The law has been rewritten in the president’s office, with no transparency. The problem is not resolved.

As another example, consider the national policy of the Minister of Justice. He wants to spend time and money to strengthen the informal system of justice. But the informal system such - as the jirga or shura - consists entirely of men and always decides every issue against women. To protest this idea, medica mondiale joined with the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Unifem, Unama, and other NGOs. We pointed out that the Ministry of Justice has not been able to reform the formal justice system and make it adhere to the rule of law. To try to strengthen the informal system - in contradiction to the constitution and the fundamental rights of women - could only make things worse.

What do you think about the women who are running for president?

Out of forty-one candidates, only two are women. Like the male candidates, these women nominated themselves, but neither one has the popular or financial support to wage a big campaign. For that reason, many people regard them as foolish, but I think that we women should be very proud to have such brave women to represent us. They are ridiculed and harassed, but they have not lost courage.

As a leader of medica mondiale, I have worked hard to motivate women to vote for women candidates. Many women voters say women can’t win, but that is beside the point. Women candidates understand our concerns; they are our voice. Win or lose, we should give our support to them and not to men who refuse even to discuss our issues. If women get strong support on election day, perhaps they will be rewarded with influential positions in government; and if not, at least they are laying the groundwork for future elections and future women candidates.

Do you have a dream of the future?

Yes. I dream that the Minister of Justice will be a woman. Women deserve justice and women can deliver it. President Karzai now makes promises to women. He says he might make a woman governor of Mazar or Kabul. (He doesn’t talk of any women ministers.) But we cannot believe in his promises. After seven years in office, what he has accomplished for women is not visible.

Is there anything you fear?

Fear? Yes. We live every day with fear. In our work here at medica mondiale we are always under threat. Personally, I work every day in fear, hoping to return safely at the end of the day to my home. And as I think about the upcoming election, I fear that nothing will change. I fear that everything will stay the same.

But I have hope too that the international community will press the new government to bring about change. The international proceedings that took place in Bonn in December 2002 failed completely to consider the suffering of women. As a result, the position of most Afghan women today is no better than that of animals, and often much worse. This is intolerable.  he international community must respect the good aspects of Afghan culture - the strength of our families, our inner resources, our resilience - but it must take a stand against our customary practices that violate human rights. I am thinking now of such practices as child marriage, forced marriage, and the exchange of women and girls as commodities to pay debts or settle disputes.  Such practices violate both Islam and international human rights.  The international community must help us put a stop to them.

You ask the international community to stand up for your rights.  But many people say that Afghan women must stand up for themselves. What is your reply?

It is difficult, I think, for people who enjoy freedom to understand our lives. Afghan women are captive. In most provinces, women still cannot leave their homes. No woman anywhere in the country can do anything without the permission and support of her husband or father. If I did not have the full support every day of my husband and my father, I could not come to work. Those of us who have that support are still few. We are doing all we can, and we are growing stronger. But in all honesty, I think that we cannot do this alone.

* With regard to the security situation shortly before the elections our colleagues remain nameless.