Womens Political Participation in Afghanistan Essay

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As a global trend, rising number of women in politics will indicate that human beings are making progress towards a more humane world-not because women are necessarily more humane than men, but because any society that categorically excludes half of its members from the process by which it rules itself will be ruled in a way that is less than fully human Kathlene


The world over women are struggling to break the shackles that bind them challenging the unequal distribution of power in society. Transforming the existing in egalitarian pattern of gender relationships necessitates leadership in the state, markets and civil society- the key centers of power in the present globalizing economy. It is, therefore, imperative for women to be in the corridors of power and have the power to negotiate a better deal for themselves, if they are to influence policy decisions which have an impact upon them. Empowerment of women in all spheres, in particular the political sphere is crucial for their advancement and foundation of a gender-equal society. It is central to the achievement of the goals of equality, development and peace. Womens political empowerment is premised on three fundamental and non-negotiable principles: a) the equality between women and men; b) womens rights to self representation and self determination.(1)

In empowerment, the key indeed is power; it is power to access, control and make informed choices. According to the Jakarta declaration empowerment of women is not only an equity consideration, it was also a necessary precondition for sustainable economic and social development. Involvement of women in the political arena and in decision-making roles in an important tool for empowerment as well as monitoring standards of political performance. (2)The application of the philosophical underpinnings of Jakarta Declaration are necessary ,because in the countries where women have gained near equal representation such as in Scandinavian countries, they have begun to alter the very nature of politics. Women are, however, virtually invisible in the political sphere. The notions of a distinct public/political sphere have been used to legitimize the exclusion of women from the public sphere. Under-representation or invisibility of women in decision-making reinforces their deprivation, leading to an unequal distribution of resources, neglect of their interests, needs, perspectives and priorities and no say in policy making.

Their voices fall on deaf ears, and as Alida Brill vehemently insists, without our own voices being heard inside the government arenas and halls of public policy and debate, we are without the right of accountability _ a basic entitlement of those who are governed .(3) To effectuate feminization of politics a critical mass of women in the decision-making bodies is yet to emerge. The substantial gains made by the womens movement over the decades, are not adequately reflected in representation of women in positions of power. The 30 percent target of womens representation fixed by the Economic and Social Council is not included in the International Development Targets. (4) The world average of women in legislative bodies continues to be merely 12-13 percent; only a few countries have 30 percent or more women in decision-making posts.

(5) According to the United Nations Division for the advancement of women (UNDAW), Fact sheet on women in government of 1996, the percentage of women in both ministerial and sub-ministerial levels ranges from 0 percent (in about 15 countries, to 30 percent in 2 countries. 15 countries had 0 percent of women in governmental positions in 1996, out of which 8 were Arab countries. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) statistics, from 1945 to 1995, the percentage of women MPs worldwide has increases four-fold. Their latest statistics indicate that, in 2000, the world average of women in parliaments (both houses combined) is 13.8 percent. The regional variations, however, are significant. The highest percentage of women in parliaments in the Nordic countries at 38.8 percent, followed by Europe (including the Nordic countries) at 16.0 percent, Americas at 15.5 percent, Asia at 15.0, Europe E member countries (excluding the Nordic countries) at 14.1 percent, Sub-Saharan Africa at 11.6 percent, Pacific at 8.3 percent and the lowest in the Arab states at 3.3 percent. (6) Among the individual countries Sweden ranks first with 44.7%percent of women in Parliament, followed by Denmark at 39.1%percent and Finland at 36.5 percent.

Afghanistan ranks 37 With mere a 27.7% Percent of women in parliament. It is noteworthy that at least 9 states including Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have no women in Parliament. Given this factual background , there is a need for examining the existing power structures, the extent of womens participation in the political process and suggest measures to increase the critical mass or the member of women in politics, thereby paving the way for transformative politics. The issue is vast and to attempt to compress it within the confines of one paper is like putting an ocean into a jar. The present paper attempts to identify some of the key issues relating to womens political empowerment, thereby helping to clarify and advance the debate. There are no claims here to produce an exhaustive analysis. The paper, keeping in view editorial guidelines, is structures along the following lines: * A review of international actions for womens empowerment * An overview of national efforts

* Analyze the challenges faced by women in attaining de facto equality in Afghanistan * Identify future steps to enhance womens political participation

International Initiative for womens empowerment

The question of womens political participation is now on the international agenda, and permeating many regional and national plans of action. Much hope has been invested in the United Nations and it has consistently been the engine for keeping the gender issues on political rights of women in 1952.Since 1975 four international conferences on women have been held under its auspices; all the conferences have emphasized womens political empowerment as a key concern. (7) The issue of womens political empowerment, while attracting considerable attention earlier, actually came to the forefront of the global debate for womens rights at the time of Fourth World Conference on women held at Beijing in 1995.Henceforth, the issue continued to hold centre-stage of all discussions on gender justice and equality. Womens equal access to, and full participation in decision- making was emphasized in the platform for action, as one of the critical areas of concern.

It unequivocally declared, Womens equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women. womens equal participation in decision-making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for womens interests to be taken into the account .(8) A detailed set of recommendations were issued therein to all governmental and non-governmental communities, nationally and internationally , to enhance womens political participation and decision-making.it recommended governmental commitment to gender balance in all spheres, reform of electoral systems, monitoring and evaluation of progress in womens representation, revamping of party structures to remove barriers to womens political participation, incorporation of gender issues and initiatives in the agenda of political parties, affirmative action, create or strengthen mechanisms to monitor womens access to senior levels of decision-making among others. (9) it affirmed that women should have at least a 30 percent share of decision-making positions.

However, recommendations are exactly that; they rarely, if ever, can be enforced with full authority and extent of law. Womens political participation was equally focused upon at the Asia Pacific Regional NGO Symposium (1999) held in Thailand on the theme Asia Pacific Women 2000: Gender Equality Development and Peace for the Twenty-first Century too focused on womens political participation as one of the critical areas of concern recognized in BPFA.

It noted the gains but recognized that power structures continue to be dominated by men; womens representation continues to be low and recommended that timeframes be set and monitors to meet assigned quotas on womens representation in politics. Womens Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) has launched a campaign for 50-50, that is, equal representation. This brief review reveals that womens political empowerment is at the centre-stage of all discourse on womens issues at the international level. Corresponding to the international efforts, various initiatives have been/ are being taken for the purpose at the national level too.

Women political empowerment in Afghanistan

The status of women in Afghanistan has been of deep concern since they were stripped of their fundamental rights under Taliban rule. Today, The Asia Foundation works to promote opportunities for Afghan girls and women through collaboration with a broad range of local partners, including government agencies and influential non-state actors, including civil society, and tribal and religious leaders. The Foundation provides growing support for girls to access education and programs that increase womens economic participation and access to justice. The Foundation is helping build the capacity of the Ministry of Womens Affairs to be an effective advocate for policy reform and provision of services to women. Although Afghan women still face significant challenges, there have been some notable achievements, including a national constitution that guarantees womens equal rights, the adoption of the National Plan of Advancement of Women of Afghanistan 2008-2018, and the growth of civil society organizations working to advance womens rights and deliver much-needed services for women.

There has also been significant progress in getting girls, who were banned from attending school under the Taliban, enrolled in public schools. Today, more than two million girls attend school, representing 35 percent of the total K-12 student population, and womens university enrollment is also increasing. Four hundred women contested the 2010 parliamentary elections and for the first time, women served as election observers in all 34 provinces in Afghanistan. According to Womens Empowerment in Post Conflict Afghanistan, After decades of war, among the many challenges of post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan, is womens empowerment. But what does Empowerment mean? Empowerment is a very dynamic and context dependent concept. It can be conceived on different levels and domains, as debated by different development agents and feminists (Afshar, 1998). However, in feminist discourse, power is defined in a more relational form. It is not defined in isolation but in consideration of the role and relationship of women with women, men and the wider community.

The emphasis is not on the power over, as observed by Rowland (1998), which is a more traditional interpretation of empowerment. Rowland reflects on different interpretations of power, with the most possible different connotations, which change the terms of womens empowerment out of its usual interpretation of being threatening to the power of the opposite sex. Some of the other interpretations, instead of power over, that she uses are: power with; power to; and power within. The interpretations in these other cases are in a more generic form, such as, power with refers to the collective action of tackling a problem together, power to as generative or productive power, which creates new possibilities and actions. Before I go further into womens emancipation and their participation in social and political life of the country as citizens, it is important to look at the power structure in a traditional society. What does womens empowerment mean in a country where the question of women has been part of clashes between the modernists and the traditionalists, throughout the history?

Considering the complexity of the power structure within the Afghan society and womens status within the family, community / tribe and finally the state, this research highlights the fact that womens empowerment cannot be discussed in terms of individuality, but, according to a feminist definition in relation to men, women and the community, not in isolation (Rowland, 1998). Afghan women are not a homogenous class. There are a number of significant socioeconomic factors, which contribute to the diversity of womens emancipation in the Afghan society, such as, age; educational level; and, the urban-rural divide. However, in general, Afghanistan is a traditional society where the notion of power is embedded in the patriarchal nature of the culture: reinforcing male supremacy and control over women to uphold family honor with conformity to accepted behavioral norms, which limits womens life choices (Dupree, 1998). As in other contexts, womens empowerment in Afghanistan cannot be discussed in a void, but should develop, through an understanding of the complexity of power and control structures in different layers around women.

Stumbling Blocks and stepping stones

The problems facing women wishing to run for parliament have been described as the four Cs- culture, childcare, cash and confidence. (10) The unequal participation of women in power and decision-making structures as the local, national, regional and international levels reflects structural, attitudinal and cultural barriers prevailing in all societies. Stereotypical gender roles remain a major obstacle in womens political empowerment. On the one major obstacle in womens political empowerment. One the one hand women are considered unfit for leadership. The public-private domain theory has been used as Vicky Randall observes, ideologically to justify womens exclusion from public politics, while womens actual confinement to a narrow domestic sphere has been a major brake upon effective political participation.

At the same time the public-private convention has masked the crucial interdependence of these spheres. Not only have womens private roles limited and largely defined their public contribution, but public policies have confirmed their private obligations. The impact is that political parties are hesitant to select women candidates from winnable seats. Women are usually fielded from losing constituencies where the party does not want to waste a male candidate.

Male equivalence the assumption that women access political life with the support, backing and contacts of family, in particular, that of the husband has been a dominant explanation for how women enter political life. It is difficult for women to establish a foothold without patronage from powerful men in the party- that too through close personal relations, as wives, daughters or sisters. The criterion for selection of women in constituency , but other apolitical considerations. Very few of the women in politics have an independent base as their entry point. Most enter politics as a sister, daughter, and wife of some men, who for some reason cannot contest election.

A compartmentalization of the stumbling blocks leads us to the following points: social barriers include double responsibilities of women; traditional division of labor where womens roles are ascriptive; lack of social services and support network; illiteracy; and socialization into gendered roles. Economic barriers may categorized as changes in a global economic market; biased theories and practices of development ; and feminization of poverty. Political barriers include type of electrol system; structures and agendas of political parties; lack of sufficient training and communication skills; and access to technology.


Despite all the roadblocks that are clearly evident, it is possible to imagine and revision a more inclusive political system that allows for all the citizens to be democratically present in the political processes. In view of the need to ensure accommodation of the voice, ideas and the needs of women and to rectify imbalances in political representation, participation as the pre-requisite for facilitating and nurturing leadership is essential. The government must create an enabling environment for active leadership generating participation, which would ensure that womens voices are heard in Afghanistan. Leadership too needs to be transformational, effecting changes in institutions of governance.

Special mechanism must be introduced in order to induct women at all levels of decision-making to ensure that they form a critical mass and contribute to policy planning and implementation. The need is formulate institutional mechanisms and work out concrete measures to ensure and enhance womens involvement and representations in positions of power and decision-making. Enhancing womens political representation also entails reviewing of the process of selection of candidates within the political parties. The Beijing +5 Outcome Document too recognized the need to encourage the nomination of more women candidates through political parties, quotas or measurable goals, or the other appropriate means for election to parliaments and other legislative structures, to increase their share and contribution in formulation of public policy.

The political parties must honour their commitment to gender justice and equality and ensure womens representation all all levels of party hierarchy. Women, moreover, need to be actively involved in defining the political, economic, and social agenda. 26 This necessitates enhancing the performance and political skills of those women already in decision-making positions through imparting of formal as well as formal training, which could impart the art of lobbying, raising funds, networking as well as campaigning.

Some systematized politicians would benefit new entrants to the political field. Women in senior positions, those who are already at the zenith of power could act as role models and mentors for the struggling ones. A massive grassroots movement must be initiated to change the perceptions of both decision-makers and voters. In this context, there is a need to develop strong linkage with already elected nearly one million grass root women. Lastly, it is absolutely essential to have a fixed time frame for achieving gender parity in political representation, without which governments and political parties cannot be held accountable.


Its not about simply mainstreaming women. Its not about women joining the polluted stream. Its about cleaning the system, changing stagnant pools into fresh flowing waters. 27 when the interests and voices of half of humanity are not reflected in decision-making processes, the very legitimacy of the institutions, legislative and executive becomes questionable. Women are marginalized in the political process through co-operation, repression, socialization and sabotage. Women have been unable to find or create a space for themselves in decision-making sphere. The discourse, procedures, structures and functioning of political institutions remain heavily skewed in favor of men, as evident from disproportionately small number of women in decision-making bodies.

The level of political participation among women in any society acts as a reliable barometer of the health of its system; it is clear that there is a systemic disease. Afghan womens qualitative as well as quantitative participation at all levels of governance structures is absolutely essential for their empowerment. Bringing women into power is not only a matter of equity, of correcting an adjust and unrepresentative system, but is a means of addressing wider social issues of poverty eradication, employment, health and like, in short, facilitating a just , peaceful and humane social order. It is not an end itself, but a means to effectuate a change in the system.


1. CAPWIP , Issues in Womens Political Empowerment in the Asia-Pacific Region, Proceeding of women in Asia and the Pacific: High-Level Intergovernmental Meeting to Review Regional Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, ESCAP, Manila, October 26-29,1999,p.281. 2. Jakarta declaration For the Advancement of Women in Asia and the Pacific, Second Asian and Pacific Ministerial Conference on Women in Development, Jakarta, June 7-14, 1994. 3. Brill Alida. (ed), A Rising Public Voice : Women in Politics Worldwide, New York, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1995, p.1. 4. UNIFEM, Progress of the Worlds Women 2000: UNIFEM Biennial Report, New York, N.Y.: UNIFEM, 2000, P.9. 5. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Netherlands are a few examples of countries having more than thirty percent of women in decision-making posts.
6. IPU Website, http://www.ipu.org

7. In 1975, The World Plan of Action, adopted in the First World Conference held in Mexico City, put forward various suggestions, for the recruitment, nomination and promotion of women in various branches of government, public bodies, trade unions and pressure groups: In Copenhagen, in 1980, further steps were recommended to promote international cooperation and strengthen peace through womens participation.

The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies, adopted in the Third World Conference on Women, Nairobi (1985) stresses that Women by virtue of their gender, experience discrimination in terms of equal access to the power structure that controls society and determines development issues and peace initiatives

(Para 46) It was further pointed out that For true equality to become a reality for women, the sharing of power on equal terms with men must be a major strategy. ( para 51) the importance of governmental and non -governmental organizations in educating women to exercise their newly-own civil, political and social rights was emphasized. In this process of consciousness rising, efforts would have to be made to fix definite time-bound targets and even resort to be quota system.

8. Beijing Platform for Action , p 109
9. For details see Beijing Platform for Action, p 109-115. The goal of equal participation of men and women in decision-making as a crucial element to strengthen democracy was equally emphasized by commission on the Status of Women at its 41st session in 1997. The efforts for womens political empowerment made by governments of Asia and the Pacific were also analyzed at the ESCAP High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to Review Regional Implementation of Beijing Platform for Action , October 26-29,1999, The report reveals that of the 40 countries in region, the proportion of women in the national legislatures increased in 28 countries, declined in 8 and remained the same in 4.Yet women remained in a minority in the legislatures.( Report of ESCAP High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to
Review Regional Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, October 26-29, 1999 , p.86) 10. The best man for the job? The Selection of Women Parliamentary Candidates, Finding of the Fawcett Society, February, 1997. Presented at listen to Womens Vote. 1998, p. 19

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