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Millions Of Afghan Women Register To Vote, Hoping To Have An Impact

KABUL -- As she has for each of the past five days, 70-year-old Shugufa wakes up at 5 a.m. and trudges to a voter-registration center in Karte Seh, a neighborhood in western Kabul.

After making the hourlong journey in darkness, Shugufa squats in front of the entrance to her local voter-registration office. She takes out her small thermos of green tea and sips a cup while eating a loaf of bread -- her breakfast -- as she waits patiently for the office to open at 8 a.m.

Shugufa then waits for hours each day in a line bulging with hundreds of other prospective voters.

On April 1, the last day for Afghans to register to vote in the April 5 presidential and provincial elections, Shugufa finally secured a voting card that will allow her to cast her ballot and determine her country's next leaders.

With just days to go before the polls, millions of Afghans have braved long lines and the threat of militant attacks to obtain their voter cards. A sizable number of those who rushed to register this year have been women.

According to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, around 3.8 million new voters have registered for the April 5 elections. More than one-third of these new voters are women. That's a significant number in a deeply conservative country like Afghanistan, where women continue to face considerable obstacles in exercising their basic rights.

Shugufa, draped in a long black shawl, says she is determined to make herself heard at the ballot box -- even if it means putting her life at risk. "[Women] do not have education and do not have a voice. Years of war and suffering have ensured this," she says. "If there is violence and people die, I don't care if I'm killed as well. I will vote. There's no reason I won't vote."

Maintaining Their Gains

Shugufa, like many women in Afghanistan, is worried about losing some of the hard-won gains they have secured in the past decade once the majority of foreign combat troops leave at the end of this year.

Indeed, a backslide in women's rights has begun even before the foreign troops pull out.

Female lawmakers have failed in their attempts to outlaw violence against women. Instead, conservative male lawmakers have looked to reintroduce stoning as the punishment for adultery, as well as a law that prevents victims of violence and abuse from testifying against husbands and other relatives. Meanwhile, the number of seats reserved for women in provincial councils has been reduced, prompting criticism from local and international rights groups.

WATCH: As Afghans prepare to vote in the presidential election on April 5, some female voters feel that the stakes are especially high for them. (Reuters)
Afghan Women Hope For Change As Election Nears
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Shugufa says she is determined to use her vote to protect the gains that have been made and to ensure progress does not stop. "[Some women] have become educated and there has been progress. But some of our girls are [at home] and weaving carpets 24 hours a day," she says. "There is nothing for them to do except to weave carpets. I will vote [to ensure] they have a better future."

More Women Voters -- And Even Candidates

Many of the presidential candidates have highlighted the importance of female voters in this election, with three choosing women as their second vice-presidential running mates.

The most high-profile woman among the presidential tickets is Habiba Sarabi, who is the second vice-presidential running mate for Zalmai Rasul, a former foreign minister who is one of the favorites to become the country's next president. Sarabi would become Afghanistan's first female vice president if Rasul wins. The 57-year-old Sarabi, a pharmacist, already made history when she became the country's first female governor in 2005.

In a bid to encourage women to vote, Sarabi has attended many of Rasul's election rallies, telling women to grab their chance to determine the country's future.

Meanwhile, Rula, the wife of candidate Ashraf Ghani, has campaigned beside her husband. Rula, a Lebanese Christian, has attended numerous meetings and rallies, extremely rare occurrences in a country where the current first lady almost never appears in public.

Compared to previous elections, thousands of women and girls have attended election rallies, participated in candidates' conventions, or worked as campaigners in the 2014 vote.

Sahar, a second-year economics student at Kabul University, says women have an important role to play in the election. "We [women are important and] have a lot of expectations. These expectations have to be given consideration," she says. "In this current situation, the rights of women [and men] need to be equal."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.