- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

As Afghanistan prepares to hold its first elections on Oct. 9, human rights activists say democratic freedom remains a distant goal for women there.

“The truth is that Afghan women are in danger of slipping into a sinkhole being created by ongoing violence and lack of funding,” said Ritu Sharma, executive director of Women’s Edge Coalition, at a press conference hosted by the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Since the fall of the Taliban, violence has been the order of the day. Warlords have imposed Taliban-like restrictions on women. Those women who attempt to exercise their rights are subject to threats and intimidation, several activists said.

Moreover, the Taliban itself is re-emerging and gaining strength, said T. Kumar, director for Asia and the Pacific for Amnesty International USA.

Mrs. Sharma explained that they received reports that women and girls are being subjected to rapes, beatings, kidnappings and other forms of intimidation that are preventing them from going to their jobs or schools, registering to vote or just going about their daily business.

Ashraf Haidari, spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington, said it is unfair to use Western standards in judging Afghanistan’s progress.

The constitution now guarantees equal rights for women, Mr. Haidari said.

“The situation has dramatically changed,” he said, pointing out that 41 percent of the registered voters are women.

Masooda Jalal is among 18 candidates running for president, and she is very much involved in the defense of women’s rights, Mr. Haidari said.

Two women also hold posts in Afghanistan’s 30-member transitional government.

Apart from concern over women’s rights, the worsening security situation in Afghanistan also threatens the presidential election, which was rescheduled owing to security concerns.

More than 5,000 polling stations in the country will have to be protected, said Malaly Volpi, executive director of the Policy Council on Afghan Women.

Afghan women’s political participation is subjected to intimidation, according to a recent survey by the Asia Foundation.

According to the survey, 87 percent of all Afghans interviewed said women would need their husband’s permission to vote, and 72 percent said men should advise women on their voting choices.

Thirty-five percent of women said they were not sure if their husbands or male elders would give them permission to vote.

Mrs. Volpi said the illiteracy rate among women, 89 percent, is another major concern.

“How will they be able to vote? They will probably vote what their husbands or some militiamen will have told them to vote. Or they will vote for [incumbent President Hamid] Karzai because they will recognize his picture.”

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