Deliberate attacks designed to strike fear. Will Afghan women dare to vote?
On Saturday Afghans will go to the polls for a historic election. If the elections manage to take place as planned then this will be the first democratic handover of power ever to happen in Afghanistan. The country’s history has been marred by military coups, invasion, dictatorship and civil war.
The Taliban have been doing all they can to strike fear into the hearts of civilians and to make it less likely that people will show up at the polls, and insecurity has increased markedly ahead of the elections.
Until mid-February I was living in Kabul, working on advocacy and campaigns for a development NGO. When I asked my Afghan colleagues how many of them were planning to vote, the question was met with silence. After some probing my colleagues told me they were scared to go to the polling stations due to the insecurity. If Afghans working on rights and development issues in Kabul are scared to vote, what does this say for the rest of the population in more unstable areas?
Kabul is normally comparatively stable; it’s provinces closer to the Pakistani border like Helmand, Kandahar and Jalalabad that usually see more violence and attacks. However in the last 14 days alone several well-planned attacks have taken place in Kabul, increasingly aimed at civilian targets.
On 20 March a high profile hotel in Kabul, the Serena, was attacked. Nine people were killed including a prominent Afghan journalist, Sardar Ahmad who was celebrating the Afghan New Year with his wife and children. He, his wife and two daughters were killed. The Serena Hotel was the place where most international election monitoring missions were hosting their staff; many left the country after this attack.
Last weekend an NGO guest house, Root of Peace, a group that focus on clearing landmines, was targeted by the Taliban. There have also now been two attacks on the Independent Electoral Commission building in Kabul, and several attacks on their provincial offices. The Taliban are making a clear effort to destabilise election regulatory and monitoring mechanisms as well as hitting civilians working on development issues.
'Increased insecurity will affect people's moral - especially for women - to come out on election day and vote.'
Samira Hamidi, Empowerment Centre for Women, Kabul
And then this morning, there’s been another attack, this time with a member of the Afghan National Police shooting two American journalists in Khost. They were traveling in a protected convoy when the attack took place.
While there is widespread fear around the safety voting, it is women in particular who are vulnerable to violent attacks:
'We have experienced the deadliest winter and a horrifying spring start. The insecurity has increased hugely for women across the country.
'Most of the time I do not feel secure. I sometimes even think I might not return back home in the evening as this has happened to many.'
Ahead of the elections I have been speaking with Amnesty partners in Kabul about their hopes and fears for the elections and for the future of Afghanistan. Amnesty supports many incredible women human rights defenders in Afghanistan, women that are at the front line of providing services what is an incredibly dangerous and unstable environment. For them it was clear that fears of insecurity are permanent not just connected to elections. Over the last year several high profile women have been targeted for what they do.
'The threats faced by women, especially those who work and advocate for women’s rights, is more because of the narrow understanding and one-sided interpretation of Islam by traditionalists and radical Islamists. They resent the sympathy of the West for the cause of Afghan women, and interpret it as women straying away from Islam. As a result working women, in particular vocal women, are always at risk of becoming targets of such groups.'
Zulaikha Rafiq, Director of Afghan Women’s Educational Centre
For women like Samira and Zulaika, Afghanistan is dangerous regardless of the elections, and their fears are increasing: they are scared that international governments will start to pay less attention and to support Afghans less as their troops leave later this year.
It’s vital, then, that international leaders like our own Prime Minister hold whoever is elected Afghanistan’s next President to account on their plans for women’s rights. We are calling on David Cameron to discuss women’s rights with whoever is elected to replace Karzai, stressing the importance of upholding the commitments already made in the Afghan constitution and also further women’s rights.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.