By Jerome Starkey in Kabul and Kim Sengupta | The Independent
Millions of Afghan women will be denied their chance to vote in presidential elections this week because there aren't enough female officials to staff the women-only polling stations.
A desperate shortage of female staff is threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, which are the pinnacle of western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy. Strict cultural norms mean women can't vote in male-run stations.
Women's activists said the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which is organising the polls, still needs to recruit 13,000 women before Thursday's elections.
The IEC refused to comment on recruitment figures, but papers leaked to The Independent suggest the shortfall is much worse, at more than 42,000.
Without female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, without female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrive at those stations, conservative men across the country will ban their wives and daughters from taking part.
"If half of the population can't participate, the election is illegitimate," said Orzala Ashref, a director of the Afghan Women's Network. "Without women's votes, without women's participation, of course the election is not going to be valid."
Under the Taliban women were banned from working, beaten for laughing, and only allowed outside their homes with a male relative to escort them. Improving women's rights has been a central pillar of the US-led mission, but in many parts of the country medieval customs still prevail and women are treated like property.
"You need female staff," said leading women's rights activist Wazhma Frogh. "Otherwise women won't dare go out. Their families won't let them."
The problem is most acute in the south east, where there are just 2,564 women on the IEC books, less than 20 percent of the 13,400 target. In the south, they have less than half the 10,428 women required.
At Nad-e-Ali in Helmand, an area recently under Taliban control, a lack of policewomen had meant that required searches of female voters cannot be carried out. Local elders have rejected suggestions that female British troops should carry out the task.
Many men in this deeply conservative area are adamant that they will not let women from their families vote in mixed stations. Following a shura - community meeting - at Char-e-Anjir, a nearby town recaptured from the insurgents, a number of heads of families said they may consider letting female relations vote as long as strict controls were applied.
Niamtullah Khan, a 57 year old farmer, said: "We are very concerned about this. Most of my neighbours are against letting women go to these places where anything can happen. I, and a few others, think we should look ahead and have change, but I would not approve of my wife, sister, or daughter going into buildings with a lot of unknown men."
Wali Mohammed, 71, said: " Women voted in the past, so they should vote again. But the government must create the right conditions."
The IEC launched an emergency appeal through women's rights organisations last week to try and fill the staffing gap. But in a sign of growing desperation, officials have suggested hiring old men and boys in their place.
"We are totally against this," Ms Ashref said. "The men will tell women, 'If you go and vote it will be men who search you'. Would women from the UK feel comfortable being searched by a man? It's even more sensitive here. They won't let them go."
The lack of female staff has fuelled fears of proxy voting, where men vote for their entire families. Concerns were first raised in December when The Independent revealed "phantom" women voters were outnumbering men in the registration process. Election officials in Gardez were encouraging men to register wives, mothers and daughters in absentia.
"They said I could just give them a list of the women in my family, and they would give me the registration cards," said one. "I could see lists and lists of women's names on the table. They said they were under pressure from Kabul to register lots of women."
New figures seen by The Independent show women registrants outnumbered men in five provinces, including Logar, Paktia and Khowst. In Paktika women accounted for 49% of new registrants.
What's most alarming is that those places where the female recruitment has been most difficult are the same places where there was over-registration of women," said a senior western diplomat.
Women's registration cards are especially prone to fraud because unlike the men's, they don't include a passport picture of the owner. Photographs of bare faced women are deemed culturally unacceptable.
In Helmand, Hamid Karzai's agents have faced claims they are buying up registration cards in places where people are unlikely to vote. "Ballot stuffing is going to be pretty outrageous," said a Western official involved with the elections.
Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said election officials were making "strenuous" efforts to encourage female participation but he admitted: "There will be difficulties in some areas of the country in women casting their vote".
Women's votes are also more susceptible to fraud because even in the places where there are female staff, it's usually impossible for them to stay after dark, when the counting starts.
There are fewer than 500 international observers - nowhere near enough to monitor more than 6,500 polling centres, and up to 30,000 individual voting stations. Supporters of Mr Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have warned of Iran-style protests, "with Kalashnikovs," if Mr Karzai wins in the first round, insisting he could only do it by fraud.
The total cost of the elections is more than $220 million, but most of the money and foreign mentors arrived earlier this year. The IEC was only told it had to hire 28,000 searchers, including 14,000 women, in the middle of last month.
IEC officials refused to give exact figures on female recruitment, but papers seen by The Independent show eight provinces across the south and east, including Helmand and Kandahar, are still critical.
"In total we need 14,000 female searchers," said an IEC official who asked not to be named. "Recruitment is going on, but in some provinces there are problems because there are no women applying for the positions."
Related article: A make or break election in Afghanistan
Read more from the Independent.