KABUL, 2 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - The United Nations and the Ministry of Women's Affairs (MoWA) called on Afghan political parties on Wednesday to promote and support female candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan under newly elected President Hamid Karzai were scheduled to be held in May but were postponed last week for security and logistical reasons.
The election has already been postponed once since the autumn due to a lack of administrative preparedness and slow progress on a census of the country's population.
Observers and women's rights activists are concerned that low public awareness of the parliamentary election, the influence of warlords in rural areas and the strongly patriarchal traditional culture in the country will mean women will be poorly represented in the new parliament.
Such a situation would be technically illegal. The new Afghan constitution states that at least 68 - two from each province - of the 249-member lower house must be women.
"We must be very, very serious and should not take it easy, otherwise warlords will grasp this absolute right of women," Habiba Sarabi, a former minister of women's affairs, told IRIN at a gathering of Afghan political parties on ending violence against women. The meeting was organised by the United Nations Development Fund for Women [UNIFEM] and the MoWA in the capital Kabul.
Sarabi said male-dominated Afghan society where the gun still ruled made women's participation in the political process very hard. "Unfortunately we can clearly see political violence against women," she noted.
Her comments followed a demonstration in the central province of Bamyan against a recent government decision to appoint a female governor to the province. Sarabi said local commanders and warlords had forced people to attend the demonstration because they did not want women in positions of authority in the country.
"People do support women as MPs, governors and ministers but there are some elements still trying to impede women's development," she noted.
Currently there are three women ministers and several others with leading government positions in Karzai's new cabinet. According to local media, Kabul is also planning to appoint women governors and ambassadors in an attempt to show the government is committed to gender equality.
But despite strong opposition from conservative elements in Afghan society, Mahbooba Hoqooqmal, state minister for women's affairs, said women had an important political role to play in reconciliation and development.
"Despite the very tense situation for women in the country, more than 200 women attended the emergency Loya Jirga [grand assembly] in early 2002 and 102 of the 500 delegates of the constitutional Loya Jirga in [December 2003] were women," Hoqooqmal told IRIN.
Clearly women want to participate in the country's political process. Of more than 8 million Afghans who voted in the presidential poll in October 2004, more than 40 percent were female. "Also for the first time in history we had a women presidential candidate," Hoqooqmal added.
There are more than 80 registered political parties in the country. But female membership remains low. Some politicians explain the lack of women in politics by arguing the high rate of female illiteracy means women members of parliament would lack the ability to defend women's rights and engage in meaningful political debate.
"I am concerned about the participation of women and also about their capacity as decision-makers in parliament," Hoqooqmal said. She added that there were many qualified and capable women who should stand as independent candidates and receive support to enable them to do this.
"The experience of the past means many educated women fear joining a political party, so the government and the United Nations must encourage them and help them to present themselves for parliamentary elections," she said.
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