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Female Afghan Candidates in Helmand Call for Fair Campaign
Female candidates in Helmand’s upcoming provincial council elections complain they are being sidelined as their male counterparts have more access to campaign funding and greater freedom of movement.
There are ten women among the 99 candidates vying for places in the southern Afghanistan province in the polls due to take place on April 5.
According to the Independent Election Commission (IEC), there are 308 female candidates among the 2,713 standing in the provincial council elections across Afghanistan. A presidential election will take place the same day, but all 11 candidates are male.
Female candidates say that as well as battling gender stereotypes in conservative Afghan society, they face threats from those who oppose women having a role the political process.
They argue that they are at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to campaigning because security risks prevent them travelling to more remote areas.
In addition, Afghan women tend to be economically dependent on men, and female candidates say they simply do not have access to the same kind of funds as their male rivals.
Helmand provincial council hopeful Razia Baluch said the kind of lavish spending some male contenders indulged in contravened IEC rules which limit campaign expenditure to 18,000 US dollars.
“Every male candidate has rented a modern office in Lashkar Gah and provides free meals to the public in addition to cash and gifts,” she said. “We cannot afford that. It is obvious that people will go to their gatherings. That’s made it difficult for us to find supporters.”
Baluch said the only solution was to lower the upper limit for campaign spending.
“Campaigns must be fair. We are not against campaigning, but we have the right to insist on equal expenditure. Female candidates are in a very weak economic position,” she said. “Besides, the men’s spending levels are illegal and the election commission should look into this.”
Fellow-candidate Bibi Layeqa complained that she was able to attract very few people to her campaign rallies.
“Men and women don’t come to my gatherings because I can’t give them food and gifts like the other candidates do. I don’t know how the candidates earn the money they are spending,” she said.
Layeqa said she believed most of the local election candidates were related to government officials and enjoyed their support, meaning they felt free to ignore IEC rules.
Abdul Rashid Naseri, a male provincial council candidate, said these claims were true.
“Most candidates give meals to hundreds of people at their gatherings and some of them even distribute special gifts,” he said. “This has affected not only women’s but also men’s campaigns.”
Naseri said candidates should prove their worth by being open about their policies and winning public trust, rather than handing out incentives that amounted to bribery.
The IEC spokesman for Helmand province, Shafiullah Safi, insisted that accusations of overspending were baseless. Staff at the electoral committee were tasked with monitoring candidates’ expenses, and legal action would be taken against anyone who exceeded the set limits, he said.
Safi acknowledged that some candidates did not inform the commission about every public meeting they organised, but he said that no formal objections had been lodged about this.
“If women candidates have complaints of this kind, they should register them immediately with the Electoral Complaints Commission. No such complaint has been recorded yet,” Safi continued, adding that the IEC met provincial council candidates every Wednesday to receive reports on the costs and numbers of people invited to each campaign event.
Other female candidates highlighted the difficulties of campaigning in outlying parts of the province and called on the IEC and security officials to help find a solution. Some male candidates, too, argued that security problems have made campaigning in certain districts difficult, if not downright impossible, for everyone those involved in the elections.
One candidate, Mohammad Hakim Zarifi, said that he had visited police headquarters several times asking for guards to accompany him and provide security for his public meetings in villages, but he had failed to obtain protection.
“There are areas where the government rules during the day and the Taleban rule at night. How are we supposd we campaign?” he asked, adding that parts of the Sangin, Kajaki, Baghran, Khanshin and Nad Ali districts were too dangerous for candidates to hold public meetings.
According to Safi, provincial council candidates are able to campaign in all areas except two districts, Baghran and Deshu, where elections will not be held at all because of the Taleban presence.
Abdul Ahad Chopan, Helmand police spokesman, said that they could not provide officers to guard every candidate in the province.
“If the candidate can find weapons, we can register it. Then the candidate can hire guards who will carry these weapons,” he said, adding that candidates had failed to inform the police 24 hours in advance of each gathering, as they had been asked to do.
Helmand police chief Mohammad Hakim Angar said that there had been no security problems to date.
“The police headquarters has only received one complaint so far, which was about the removal of photos of one candidate by supporters of another,” he said. “We are investigating this matter.”
Opinion among ordinary people in Helmand are divided about the campaign tactics used by candidates.
“We have female candidates in Helmand, but their campaigning is lukewarm,” said Abdul Hai Bahar, a resident of Marja district. “They give people neither food nor money….. Everyone wants to go to a gathering where he can eat something and get something.”
Laughing, he added, “If you ask me whether they are going to work for us, I swear to God that none of them will. They have all nominated themselves to fill their own pockets. So why shouldn't we take something from them?”
However, Maulavi Abdullah, a resident of the provincial Lashkar Gah city, said that offering free food and cash incentives was a completely wrong.
“It is against Islam and moral principles for someone to get people to support him through bribery,” he said. “Those who eat meals and take gifts provided by these candidates are also sinners, according to Islam.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand province.
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