Challenging battle for women's rights in Afghanistan

Commentary | October 07, 2010

Afghanistan’s Parliamentary elections took place on 18 September. More than 1o million people cast their vote to elect the new Wolesi Jirga, lower house of parliament, for the second time since the fall of the Taliban. Each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces elected members in proportion to its population. Out of 249 seats, 68 seats are guaranteed for women.

As the campaign was approaching the crucial final stage, we spoke with MP Safia Saddiqi, a member of Afghan Lower House of Parliament who represents the south-eastern province of Nangahar, about the challenges that women MPs face in Afghanistan. Ms. Saddiqi travelled around Nangahar with her team and discussed the future of Afghanistan with women, and the role they need to play in it.  She shares with us some of her valuable insights from the field.

PN: What were the main difficulties that female MPs running for Parliamentary elections faced during the recent campaign?

SS: Security had a crucial role to play. The lack of security, especially with regards to women candidates, prevented them from travelling to remote areas or to their provinces. This greatly affected their ability to raise the support of their constituency. Financial constraints added to the difficult security situation. Because of the lack of financial resources, women did not have enough funds to organize a proper campaign and print out posters or flyers. Under such conditions, it is hard to compete with male candidates and this means that many women simply can't afford to be active in politics.

Moreover, there is the problem of candidates running for Parliament that actively try to discredit other candidates, and unfortunately these discredited candidates are often women. All these problems are further aggravated by corruption and slander practices. And the situation is the same everywhere in Afghanistan, being it rural or urban.

PN: What are the challenges to come for those women who will be part of the newly-elected Parliament?

SS: I think that the biggest challenge for women is the difficult financial situation. For example, in the former Parliament I did not even have an office. How are we supposed to work in such conditions?

There has not been much attention given to women and their legislative proposals, or any other activities in which they are involved in the Parliament. The Afghan society is still a male-dominated society. Generally, there are no major changes in the situation of Afghan women for many reasons, be it the political or economical situation or the cultural constraints. This situation is mirrored in the Parliament.

Unfortunately there are no signs that the discrimination against women will end in the near future. There is some support from certain male Parliamentarians for the work women have been doing so far in terms of women’s rights, but on the ground, there is no crucial change for the Afghan women. Discrimination between men and women will remain one of the main challenges, as it was for 99% of the women MPs, and hopes that the current situation will change are very low.

PN: How can Parliamentarians worldwide contribute to strengthening the role women MPs in Afghanistan can have in stabilizing and transforming Afghanistan?

SS: I think that there is much value in an international network of Parliamentarians, especially from a working group focused on women MPs in Afghanistan and the wider region. Parliamentarians worldwide need to raise awareness of the importance of women’s participation in the political life of Afghanistan. There needs to be more support from Parliamentarians, especially in the neighbouring countries. The Parliamentarians Network for Conflict Prevention could be the best convener of such events. Women MPs in Afghanistan need to connect with their fellow colleagues, especially from neighbouring countries and learn from their experiences and apply the best practices and lessons learnt. There is a great need to establish cooperation among women MPs, not only within the Afghan Parliament itself but also with women MPs in the wider Arab world, which support our work tremendously. Women from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iran and other neighbouring countries could greatly benefit from sharing experiences and working together on the issues that concern us all. If we can support each other, work together for our women, children and people, and bridge our political divisions, then we can transform the region and bring peace and stability to our countries.

Click here to read this article on the Parliamentarians Network website