Op-ed: Afghan Women’s Voices in Elections: Changing the Game


Opinion piece by the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The significance of the elections in Afghanistan cannot be overestimated. They mark the first time in Afghanistan's history that power will be handed from one democratically elected government to another. More importantly, they will determine to what degree the gains of the past decade for women’s rights will be safeguarded both during the transition and by the new government. Women are looking with hope for positive change.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has undertaken a significant voter registration campaign, nearly reaching its target of 40 per cent of eligible female voters. Since registration began last year, the IEC has registered 3.6 million new voters, of which a third, 1.2 million, are women. UN Women applauds the efforts of the Government to ensure sufficient female staff in the polling stations, as this will encourage more women to vote.

Adding Volume to the Voice – Supporting the Game Changers

There is consensus that the elections must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-managed process. The role of the UN is mainly to provide support to the electoral institutions and Afghan authorities. UN Women has focused its support on civil society engagement and coordination to ensure that the issues that blocked women from votingduring the 2009/10 elections are mitigated in this round of elections. To that end, UN Women facilitated the creation of the Civil Society Exchange, bringing together civil society representatives and individual women’s rights activists to coordinate efforts in raising awareness through joint advocacy and information-sharing.

This advocacy “think tank” collects information on Afghan women’s situation through the members’ various networks, analyses trends and issues, and then advocates with the relevant institutions. Currently the focus is on the challenges associated with women’s participation in political and social life. By bringing together individual pieces of data, the Civil Society Exchange amplifies women’s voices on the issues impacting their ability to participate in the vote. Post-election activities will seek to determine the degree to which women participated, and to advocate with the new government and leaders to protect women’s rights as promised during the campaigning.

Working with the New Leadership

But is it enough, and what guarantees are there? During the past 12 months, tensions have risen on issues such as negative provisions proposed within the revised Eliminating Violence Against Women Law and the Criminal Procedure Code, as well as reduced quotas for women under the revised Election Law. Only through heavy consultations between civil society, parliament, the Ministry of Justice and the President’s Office as well as advocacy by the international community, have these regressive initiatives been brought to the public eye and alleviated to the degree possible. These challenges highlight the fact that there remain many in Afghanistan’s power structures and society who fail to see the need for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Afghanistan has a number of international obligations and national commitments aimed at ensuring that the rights of women are protected. Aside from its own Constitution, the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) provides Afghanistan with the essential foundation for building a new national ethos that celebrates human rights and the full participation of all its citizenry in decision-making, and provides the political and economic frameworks to deliver on its commitments to all. If Afghanistan were to fulfill all of its obligations under CEDAW, the rights of women and girls would be guaranteed.

Afghanistan cannot afford to ignore its women, to slip back into the past and hide away half the productive population. Most importantly, Afghanistan cannot afford to lose the gains of the past decade, for to do so would mean it has lost its place in the global arena and its regional sphere of influence. No matter who wins the elections, Afghanistan must guarantee that its women win in the long run. UN Women together with the rest of the UN system remains committed to supporting the new leadership as well as civil society and women’s rights activists to change the game so women can participate on a level playing field.