Mitigating Electoral Violence Against Women in Afghanistan

Caption

A young woman argues her position at the IFES-sponsored Afghan National Debate Championships in Kabul, held at the American University of Afghanistan in 2013.

As Afghanistan goes to the polls on October 20, Afghan women, 417 of whom are running for office, face widespread discrimination. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), as part of the “Mitigating Electoral Violence Against Women in Afghanistan” project supported by Global Affairs Canada, facilitated seven focus group discussions and four interviews with female election officials, civil society members and candidates to understand and highlight challenges to women's participation in Afghanistan’s electoral process. The violence against women in elections (VAWE) assessment is based on IFES’ established methodology, which looks at root causes and triggers of violence against women and provides an understanding of the risk of VAWE by examining the status of women in their society, their access to the electoral process, and trends in and responses to VAWE. The five key findings are discussed below.

  • Physical security concerns: Focus group participants had mixed feelings about women’s turnout in October, with younger women believing that it will be higher since they are motivated by anger toward Parliament’s inaction on major issues, while older activist and candidates were more cynical given the potential for fraud and security issues. A recurring theme discussed during the focus group was the lack of adequate security in the electoral process. Security affects both women and men, but the risk for women is significantly greater, limiting their movement and impacting their ability to register, run, campaign, and vote. Female candidates in past elections have received death threats, been kidnapped and even killed. Employees of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan cited the limited number of polling places due to security concerns, and the need for women to travel further distances will make it more difficult for them to work at a polling place or vote. 
  • Financial discrimination: Many focus group participants also mentioned the lack of financial resources for women, which limits women’s ability to campaign. Often, women running for office are government workers or teachers, but since government workers need to resign from their positions to run, this creates financial hardship and many women lose their jobs long before Election Day. Some women acknowledged that due to the lack of financial resources, they are forced to rely on powerful and influential men to support their campaigns. A clear finding from the discussions was that the overt financial constraints present an example of structural discrimination against female candidates. 
  • Online harassment: Another finding from the discussions was the use of electoral violence against female candidates via social media, as women witnessed additional problems when running campaigns online. A larger number of candidates use social media for campaigns but lack training on the ethics of its use. 
  • Lack of redress: Women in the political process are dealing with difficulties regardless of the role they play, which is exacerbated by the lack of a complaints mechanism sensitive to violence against women. As one woman stated, “even in the provincial offices, female election officials are threatened by male election officials and guards.” One woman mentioned the inappropriate behavior of a male election official toward women and several submitting complaints against him, which led to him only being transferred instead of dismissed or disciplined. 
  • Pressure to commit fraud: Focus group participants also mentioned the pressure felt by female candidates to commit fraud or agree to undesirable actions in order to have a “successful” campaign. According to one participant, it is largely believed that straightforward campaigning is not enough to win the election, which discourages honest candidates and forces candidates to align themselves with powerful forces, who are almost always male.

"When there are political problems, such as a lack of adequate security, it creates a lack of trust. This impacts women as they lose their appetite to participate in any role." – Focus group participant

"It is even more difficult for women to campaign on social media because their photos are edited and misused on fake accounts to humiliate them." – Focus group participant

Focus group participants offered the following policy recommendations to ensure the safe participation of women in electoral processes:

  • Amending of the laws to support greater and safer female participation; 
  • Need for men to become allies and support women candidates; 
  • Monitoring and regulation of media campaigns; 
  • Development of a robust complaints mechanisms sensitive to violence against women, particularly in social media; and
  • A societal commitment to encourage and support female candidates.

IFES is combining the report with the VAWE analysis, which provides both a detailed understanding of the many causes of violence and potential solutions in Afghanistan, with the objective of advocating for more fair, transparent, and safe elections.