Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Enrollment of Female Voters Lagging

Despite efforts to encourage their participation, the number of women registered to vote in this summer’s election is still troublingly low.
By Qayum Babak, Ezatuallah Zawab, Danish Karokhel

Amid fears over the low numbers of women registering to vote in Afghanistan, a tribal council in the conservative province of Paktia has provided a fearsome incentive.

Families that do not enroll women will have to forfeit the equivalent of 2,000 US dollars and a bull. In addition, the family’s houses will be burned down, said Haji Kala Khan Ahmadzai, the tribal leader of the Ahmad Abad district of Paktia.

Ahmadzai said the penalties had been approved last month at a meeting of the 50-member Ahmadzai council, which includes at least 10 religious scholars.

Other tribes in the area have also agreed to enforce the punishment.

“Unless we take it this seriously, [local residents] will not take part,” he told IWPR. “And since we are [traditionally conservative] village people, we have adopted these rigid conditions.”

In Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, Nafisa Ghiasi, the headmistress of Hashim Barat High School, persuaded more than 500 women to march through the city to one of the registration centres.

Engineer Habibullah, the provincial governor, along with about 150 men, welcomed the marchers in a show of support for getting women registered to vote in the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for June.

It must be said, however, that such occurrences are the exception rather than the norm. Despite the fact that registration efforts have been under way in major centres for the past two months, the results so far - for both men and women - are disappointing.

According to figures released through the first week of February by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, UNAMA, only 796,875 people, out of an estimated 10.5 million eligible voters 18 or older have registered so far. Of these, only 176,562 are women.

There is now talk that the elections will have to be postponed. Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, said in January that the numbers made it “close to impossible to meet the June date”.

However, some say the registration process is gaining momentum.

Shamim Usmani, a female registrar in Mazar-e Sharif, said “in the beginning, very few men and women were coming for registration, but the process has speeded up”.

So far, the province of Bamiyan, dominated by the minority Shia Hazaras, has the highest proportion of women registered to vote, with 10,392 women signed up compared with 14,417 men.

It is followed by the cities of Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul.

The cities of Jalalabad and Gardez in the south have the lowest proportion of women registered. In Gardez, for example, 22,699 men have registered, but only 3,298 women are on the voting rolls.

The head of the election process in the eastern provinces, Subahdayak Shah, who is based in Jalalabad, said that registration efforts have had to pay careful attention to Pashtun culture, which traditionally does not encourage female participation in public life.

Shah said that grassroots initiatives have been started to encourage families to get women out to enroll, including talking with the imams who preach in the mosques and the maliks, traditional tribal elders.

Noor Bibi, one of the leaders of the registration effort in the region, said registrars attempt to target locations where women are likely to gather. “We established our registration office in a health clinic, so when women come in sick we write down their names,” she said.

"Of those who do register, only about 20 per cent are willing to accept a photographic identity card, the rest taking advantage of special provisions allowing women to provide just their fingerprints," she said.

Soraya Parlika, the head of the Afghan National Association of Women, said that there was still a sense of insecurity and fear among women, and greater outreach efforts need to be made. She said that female registrars need to be sent to districts and villages throughout the country to encourage women to register.

Even those who support efforts to register female voters emphasise that traditional Afghan culture needs to be respected in the process.

“People have emphasised that there should be separate [registration] centres for women in every villages and women should be enrolled by all-female teams, said Mohammad Akram Khepalwak, who was a delegate for Paktia at the recent Constitutional Loya Jirga and agrees with such ideas as tribal fines for families who fail to allow women to register to vote.

But Khepalwak said his tribe’s efforts to ensure that women register to vote may point to the creation of a “new Afghanistan”.

“Before, [even] men would not take national IDs,” he said. “Now there are changes and a new revolution in which women are taking national IDs and taking part in elections.”

Qayoum Baabak and Ezatuallah Zawab are IWPR contributors in Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad, respectively. Danish Karokhel is an IWPR local editor/trainer in Kabul. Wahidullah Amani also contributed to this report in Kabul.