As millions of women and girls in Afghanistan wait for the presidential election results, expected to be announced in November, they are worried. Their concern is that the country could backslide on the immense gains Afghan women have made since the fall of the Taliban. And if the United States uses a potentially chaotic election as an opportunity for a rash withdrawal, this outcome is likely.
In September, over 2 million Afghans headed to the polls, out of the 9.6 million people registered to vote. These preliminary numbers are from the Independent Election Commission, and unfortunately they show that participation among women was lower than anticipated.
Taliban violence and intimidation played a role in the low turnout. Additionally, the Commission required all voters be photographed for use with facial recognition software as an anti-fraud measure. Prior to the election, Afghan women’s-rights activists demanded this requirement be lifted as some women would be reluctant to have their photos taken, whether due to their own views or the views of a relatively conservative Afghan society.
Afghan women obtained the right to vote in 2004, and have been politically active since. However, the risk to their safety in exercising that right is disheartening. Encouragingly, despite low turnout, the Afghan people stood united in late September and had a unified message: We want peace, we want democracy, we want a bright future. The United States should stand beside the Afghan people as a partner and friend during this critical time in the country’s history.
To ensure Afghans did not vote in vain, the IEC and candidates will need to adhere to the democratic process. The president-elect will need to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan population and a strong mandate for peace negotiations with the Taliban. It is only through national unity that Afghanistan will address the acute challenges of violence and insecurity that extremist groups pose, and secure the vast gains women have made in the last 18 years.
The United States and international community can support this effort by dedicating funding to implement Afghanistan’s National Plan for Women, Peace and Security. This will ensure that women are active, integrated participants in any future peace talks and have a role in the implementation of any peace agreement and verification mechanism.
Moreover, stability requires equal access to justice, respect for human rights, effective rule of law and good governance, transparent and effective institutions, and access to quality education. Afghan women have made substantial advances in these areas, and we should continue to support them by ensuring gender equality remains a top priority. Washington and its allies can accomplish this by funding sustainable-development programs, and doing so in a way that maximizes grants to local women’s groups who know their context best.
For example, the cost of treatment, distance to a health facility, and social and cultural norms limit women’s access to health care, mobility, and agency. Nearly 9 in 10 ever-married women aged 15 to 49 in the 2015 Afghanistan Demographic and Health Survey reported at least one problem in accessing health care. The United States can continue supporting the Ministry of Health in improving the public healthcare system by focusing on women’s health and ensuring adequate female providers are available at clinics across the country.
Further, while entrepreneurship has been an important focus of the United States and the international community’s efforts, more programs could build capacity for women to enter service and trade-based workforces, in addition to advancing entrepreneurship. Expanding women’s economic empowerment programs benefits not only women and their families, but also Afghanistan’s economic growth. Women need more training to develop the skills to occupy IT, legal, and administrative jobs.
To support women’s access to positions of influence, the United States and international community should develop training in coordination with Afghan women politicians. It is only by ensuring that women are directly consulted and able to meaningfully participate in every aspect of social, political, and economic life that peace in Afghanistan will be achievable and sustainable over the long-term.
Afghan women refuse to go back to an era when their voices were silenced. Every Afghan who recently voted did so with the picture of a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan. They want to build a future for themselves and generations to come, and this is a triumph in and of itself. The United States should encourage its progress. The process may be chaotic, but democracy usually is.
Farhat Popal is the Senior Program Manager of the Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.