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

Teaching Women to Campaign

For Afghan women to get out of the home and onto the hustings takes some encouragement and some new-found courage.
By Wahidullah Amani

It's a race against time, to transform more than 200 normally shy women into public speakers and campaigners. The terrain is unknown for all of them, but the destination is clear - a seat in the new Afghan parliament or on a provincial council.


Standing against them are the years of Afghan tradition which has largely confined women to the home. On their side is the fact that 68 seats are reserved specifically for women in the 249-seat parliament, along with 25 per cent of council seats.


They also have a textbook, "Women's Guide to Winning in the 2005 Afghan Elections", and a formidable instructor who by the September 18 poll will have trained about 235 of the 582 women candidates competing in the elections.


The seminars, run by Nasrine Gross of the Roqia Centre for Women's Rights, are being attended by female candidates from 14 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Violence and insecurity in the other provinces, notably in the south, made it simply too dangerous to hold such sessions there.


Even a meeting that had been due to place in Ghazni for women from the central provinces of Wardak and Daikondi could not be held there and had to be moved to Kabul.


"We worry about the security and safety of our candidates, which is why we cannot go to the southern provinces …these provinces have complete security problems. Even the government cannot launch seminars there," said Gross.


The need for training becomes evident at the sessions. Those women who had sufficient courage to ask questions tended to shrink into themselves and speak in a whisper when handed a microphone.


Gross said she started her efforts to help women campaign effectively because she realised that most of them would only meet female votes while campaigning and would avoid contact with men.


Women are also entitled to compete for seats outside the quota reserved for them, but are unlikely to succeed if they limit their campaigning to only half the electorate.


In what may seem blindingly obvious in other countries more accustomed to democratic elections, Gross shed light on ways of attracting votes. Talk to people about their problems - poor health services, illiteracy, joblessness and insecurity - and then promise to do something about them. That will attract their votes, she told the candidates.


Her guide offers statistics to help make the point. On healthcare, it points out that a woman dies every 30 minutes due to complications in childbirth; there are on average 6.8 pregnancies for each woman; the maternal mortality rate is 1,600 per 100,000 (in Badakhshan province it is 6,400 per 100,000, the highest in the world); and the government spends only one US dollar per person per year on public health.


Martin de la Bey, the Dutch ambassador to Afghanistan, told the 60-odd women at the training session in Kabul that women in the Netherlands originally did not have the right to vote, let alone stand for parliament. Now, 69 of the 150 members of the Dutch parliament are women, as are five of the 16 cabinet member.


"You must be brave women and must fight for the rights of other women," he said, in translated remarks.


One candidate who took the ambassador's words to heart was Kobra Sadat.


She is standing for parliament in Ghazni and said that until now her main problem was that she "did not have the courage to speak like the men do" while she was campaigning, and that she had only attended meetings of women.


"The men don’t like the women … but now I know that I must encourage men as well to cast their vote for me." she said, adding that she was determined to go out and meet them.


Gross’s guide offers at least one reason why women are excluded from male society – the wars which for more than two decades kept men isolated from women.


"Afghan society has become very segregated. For example, women do not use the word ‘husband’. They refer to their spouses as ‘the father of my children’… Men never use the word 'wife' or 'spouse'. They use words such as ‘household’, ‘children’, ‘furnishings’ or even ‘goat’ when referring to their wife," it notes.


Latifa Shujaee, who at 25 only just meets the minimum age requirement for candidates, is standing for a seat in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, in the Daikondi province.


"I didn’t know anything about my own society and traditions because I grew up in Iran,” she said, “But with the help of the seminar, I now know about the problems facing women here and this will help me in my campaign."


Eric Kite, who attended the seminar on behalf of the United States development agency USAID, offered words of encouragement to female candidates.


"We want to see the face of Afghan women as real representatives of Afghans in the future parliament,” he said.


Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.