Greater Outreach Needed to Inform Afghans About Election Process


Tuesday  March 2, 2004

Afghan-American praises women's rights granted by new constitution

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Outreach to Afghan citizens, particularly women, about the election process is a key challenge of Afghanistan's young government, according to a leading Afghan women's rights advocate.

Nasrine Gross, an author and instructor at Kabul University, said educating Afghans about their new voting rights is difficult because of high illiteracy rates, particularly among women, and limited access to media. Addressing the Asia Society March 1 in Washington, Gross, an Afghan-American, also said that because of poor roads and the general reluctance of rural women to leave their homes, getting people to registration sites is a difficult.

The government is seeking to address the challenge, and wants to significantly increase the number of registered voters, currently limited to approximately one million of 10.5 million eligible voters, before the planned summer 2004 national elections, she said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping the government prepare for the elections. The agency also helped to facilitate the country's Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Council), which in January approved Afghanistan's first constitution since 1964.

Gross said the international legitimacy of the country "had come into question," under the former Taliban regime, which, among other abuses, eliminated rights for women and sanctioned public beatings and executions of women.

She said the new constitution -- developed by the 502 members of the Loya Jirga, including 89 women -- for the first time recognizes that Afghanistan is a country of many diverse population groups, all entitled to rights.

Gross praised the constitution's inclusion of guarantees for all citizens' basic rights, such as free speech and an equal access to public education and health care. USAID is supporting those rights by helping to build or rehabilitate schools, distributing instructional materials to teachers and textbooks to students, opening and stocking health clinics, improving water systems, and helping to develop a media sector, the agency said.

The constitution is "on the whole, very good" for women, Gross said. For example, the document stipulates that every province must send at least two women among their representatives to the national legislature.

But Gross pointed to areas of concern in the constitution that she hopes Afghan politicians will address.

For instance, while women's rights are guaranteed in the legislative articles of the constitution, there are no specific mentions of women in the judicial or administrative sections, Gross said.

She said she hopes the country's future national assembly or parliament will add amendments stipulating that at least one woman should serve on the country's supreme court and that a certain percentage of the administration's appointees be women.

She also said she wants women to have the right to join the national army.

Gross said the constitution states that "practices that discriminate against women should be discouraged," but added that every Afghan will need to focus upon how to adjust cultural traditions that sanction discrimination.

She also pointed out that the rights of the individual are restricted when an entire community believes that it must agree with what their tribal chief says. "We need to convince them -- especially women -- that they now have a voice," she said.

Gross said efforts are under way in the government and nongovernmental organizations to identify the specific traditional practices that cause problems for women and to develop culturally-sensitive solutions.

Efforts are also under way to encourage women to campaign for political offices, such as mayor and governor, she said.


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