As Afghan women await the results of the second round of presidential elections which took place over the weekend, they are watching to see that the rights they have won and the advances they have made in the last decade are not compromised.
In the political landscape of Afghanistan today—and in stark contrast to its strongly conservative culture—women vote. They are members of Parliament. They serve in the Cabinet. They hold positions in provincial councils.
Although the 2006 Afghan Constitution guaranteed women certain rights—including the right to vote, to be educated, and to hold public office—the women of Afghanistan have suffered some setbacks in the last seven years.
The administration of President Hamid Karzai has paved the way for millions of girls to go to school and for women to work and has enshrined equal rights for the citizens.
But there has been criticism that Karzai has been neither staunch nor consistent in supporting women's rights and that hard-fought gains may be traded away as the government compromises with the Taliban and other Islamic conservative groups.
Rolling back progress
Afghanistan's parliament and judiciary has repeatedly tried to erode legal protections for Afghan women.
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, laws have been proposed to reinstate stoning as punishment for adultery and to abolish the seats set-aside for women on provincial councils.
And there have been ongoing attempts to repeal the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), which was passed in 2010.
Earlier this year, a controversial article in the draft criminal procedure code exempted relatives from testifying on behalf of women who were victims of domestic violence. President Karzai signed the code into law but appended an amendment that made testifying voluntary for members of the victim's family.
Women's rights advocates criticized the move, citing the increased difficulty in successfully prosecuting domestic violence cases without being able to compel witnesses to testify. In March, Karzai publicly endorsed an edict from Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority, the Ulema Council, that said women were worth less than men.
Amid the backdrop of steady attempts to roll back the gains in women's rights, the first round of presidential elections on April 5 boasted the largest voter turnout of the last three elections. More than 7 million of Afghanistan's 12 million registered voters cast ballots - 2.5 million more voters than in 2009.
The large turnout was attributed partly to the Independent Election Commission (IEC)'s campaign to register new voters. One-third of the nearly 3.6 million new voters registered in the last year and a half are women. And it is estimated that 35 percent of the country's 12 million registered voters are women, most of them young women.
Not only did women show up in record numbers to vote, there were also a record number of women candidates on the ballot. The IEC reports nearly 300 women ran for provincial posts in 2014. That means 12 percent of the candidates were women.
And creating what was perhaps the greatest sensation of the campaign trail was Habiba Sarobi, the former governor of Bamiyan province. She ran as the vice-presidential nominee of Zalmay Rassoul, who placed third in the first round of presidential elections.
This was the first time in the history of the country that a woman ran on a viable national ticket. Massouda Jalal ran for president against Karzai in 2004, but it was seen mostly as a symbolic move.
Despite the advances, women still face serious challenges.
Throughout the country, concerns about security, health, and illiteracy are foremost in women's minds. Lacking running water, electricity, and basic health care, the majority of Afghan women are struggling from day to day. Infant mortality is high and violence against women is common.
According to Qudsia Niazi, the director of the office of the Special Attorney, the biggest achievement of Afghan women, other than getting the right of education and work, has been the reporting and reduction of the violence against women.
In an interview with the VOA in May, Niazi said, “Just in the capital city of Kabul, more than 3,500 cases of violence against women have been solved in the past four years, and the perpetrators have been convicted, sentenced with imprisonment and even execution.”
US pledges support
Many Afghan women are worried about the impact that the decrease of international aid, the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2016, and any possible negotiated peace with the Taliban will have on their lives.
Catherine Russell, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, told VOA's Afghan Service that the U.S. will support women's rights in Afghanistan after the troops leave.
Russell said the Afghanistan Promote program by the U.S. Agency for International Development is committing more than “ $200 million over the next five years to support women in the country who are politically and economically engaged, and we see that as a way to continue to support the women who've made a tremendous progress there.”
Russell added that the concerns of Afghan women are the same as those of women in the rest of world: economic, social, and political empowerment of women and girls.
The flip side of aid programs is local organization and participation in the political process.
The high turnout of women voters in the first round of presidential elections signals that Afghan women are beginning to recognize the power of becoming politically active. Afghan women firmly believe that the clock on those achievements cannot and should not be turned back.
Candidates vow to protect women's rights
Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the two candidates who vied for the presidency in the second round of elections, vowed to protect women's rights. In their campaign speeches, Both men pledged to support women's causes and to give women a greater role in government.
Abdullah considers women's rights as a make or break issue in the reconciliation talks with the opposition.
Speaking on June 5 to representatives of women's groups that supported his campaign, he thanked them for their role during the current elections and stressed “that in order for Afghan women to get the position that they deserve, it is important to first get them educated.”
He said he would enforce laws that protect the rights of women and emphasized the “role of religious leaders in removing the negative concepts and thoughts that exist in the society regarding women.”
Ghani also emphasized the importance of educating women, saying that “one educated woman in Afghan society educates a whole family.” He has also repeatedly stressed that all Afghans are equal regardless of gender, creed, color, and ethnicity, as clearly stated in the Constitution.
Ghani added that he will “pay more attention to bringing positive changes in the lives of Afghan women” if he is elected as the next president."
During an event in March to mark International Women's Day, Ghani created quite a stir by appearing onstage with his wife, who addressed the audience of women at the rally.
This has been seen as a direct response to Karzai, who has been persistently criticized by women's rights advocates for keeping First Lady Zeenat Karzai, a gynecologist by training, out of the public eye during the 13 years of his administration.