Maternity ward massacre shakes Afghanistan and its peace process

By Orooj Hakimi, Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) – After struggling to get pregnant for years, Zainab, 27, gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday morning at a small hospital in the southwestern corner of Kabul. She was overjoyed and named the boy Omid, meaning ‘hope’ in Dari.

At around 10 a.m. (0530 GMT), an hour before she and her family were set to return home to neighboring Bamiyan province a three-hour drive away, three gunmen disguised as police burst into the hospital’s maternity ward and started shooting.

Zainab, who rushed back from the washroom after hearing the commotion, collapsed as she took in the scene. She spent seven years trying to have a child, waited nine months to meet her son and had just four hours with him before he was killed.

“I brought my daughter-in-law to Kabul so that she would not lose her baby,” said Zahra Muhammadi, Zainab’s mother-in-law, unable to contain her grief. “Today we’ll take his dead body to Bamiyan.”

No group has claimed responsibility for the massacre of 24 people, including 16 women and two newborns. At least six babies lost their mothers in an attack that has shaken even the war-torn nation numbed by years of militant violence.

“In my more than 20-year career I have not witnessed such a horrific, brutal act,” said Dr. Hassan Kamel, director of Ataturk Children’s Hospital in Kabul.

The raid, on the same day that at least 32 people died in a suicide bomb attack on a funeral in the eastern province of Nangarhar, threatens to derail progress towards U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

President Ashraf Ghani condemned the attacks and ordered the military to switch to offensive mode rather than the defensive tactics it adopted while U.S. troops withdraw from the country after a long, inconclusive war.

The Taliban, the main militant group, has denied involvement in both attacks, although trust among officials and the broader public has worn thin. An offshoot of Islamic State is also among the suspects: it admitted it was behind the Nangarhar bloodshed.

WE NAMED HIM ‘HOPE’

Muhammadi, the mother-in-law, said she saw one of the attackers firing at pregnant women and new mothers, even as they cowered under hospital beds.

“We gave him the name Omid. Hope for a better future, hope for a better Afghanistan and hope for a mother who has been struggling to have a child for years,” she told Reuters by telephone in Kabul.

The gunmen then turned to target the cradle where Omid had been asleep. As the sound of bullets reverberated through the ward, Muhammadi said she fainted in fear.

“When I opened my eyes, I saw that my grandson’s body had fallen to the ground, covered in blood,” she recalled, as she wailed with grief.

The Kabul attack began in the morning when gunmen entered the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, throwing grenades and shooting, government officials said. Security forces had killed the attackers by the afternoon.

The 100-bed, government-run hospital hosted a maternity clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French name Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Just hours before the attack, MSF had tweeted a photo of a newborn in his mother’s arms at the clinic after being delivered safely by emergency caesarean section.

On Wednesday, the group condemned the attack, calling it “sickening” and “cowardly”.

“Whilst fighting was ongoing, one woman gave birth to her baby and both are doing well,” MSF said in a statement. “More than ever, MSF stands in solidarity with the Afghan people.”

Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, condemned the hospital assault in a tweet. “Who attacks newborn babies and new mothers? Who does this? The most innocent of innocents, a baby! Why?”

‘LITTLE POINT’ IN PEACE TALKS

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday condemned the two attacks, noted the Taliban had denied responsibility and said the lack of a peace deal left the country vulnerable to such violence.

Pompeo also described the stalled peace effort, which planned for intra-Afghan peace talks to begin on March 10, as “a critical opportunity for Afghans to … build a united front against the menace of terrorism.” Talks have yet to start.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Ghani’s stated intent to restart offensive operations, saying only that the U.S. military continued to reserve the right to defend Afghan security forces if they are attacked by the Taliban.

Relations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement, which was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-backed assault in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, are already frayed, and Tuesday’s events will make any rapprochement harder.

“There seems little point in continuing to engage Taliban in ‘peace talks’,” Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib said in a tweet.

For Afghanistan, the hospital attack also risks further disrupting a healthcare network that is creaking amid the challenges of dealing with the new coronavirus pandemic.

More than a third of the coronavirus cases in Kabul have been among doctors and healthcare staff, Reuters reported in early May.

The high rate of infection among healthcare workers has already sparked alarm among medics and some doctors have closed their clinics. At least 5,226 people have been infected by the coronavirus and 132 have died, according to the health ministry.

KABUL MEDICAL COMMUNITY SHAKEN

The attack has shaken the small medical community in Kabul to its core.

Nurses and doctors who survived the hospital attack said they were in shock, and resuming duties would be an emotional challenge on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Last night I could not sleep, as scary scenes of the attack kept crossing my mind,” said Masouma Qurbanzada, a midwife who saw the killings.

“Since yesterday my family has been telling me to stop working in the hospital, nothing is worth my life. But I told them ‘No, I will not stop working as a health worker’.”

Officials at MSF said they were working to try to normalise operations and had received support from other hospitals to treat dozens of infants and adults wounded in the attack.

Some medics at the hospital, however, said it would be hard to move on.

“The gunmen blew up a water tank and then started shooting women. I saw a pool of water and blood from the small gap of a safe room where some of us managed to lock ourselves,” said a nurse with MSF, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I saw patients being killed even as they begged and pleaded for their life in the holy month of Ramadan. It is very hard for me to work now.”

(Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Ahmad Sultan in Jalalabad; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White)

Protect women from domestic violence during coronavirus lockdowns: pope

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Monday society had to stand behind women victims of domestic violence, as abuse increased around the world during coronavirus lockdowns.

Francis praised women in frontline roles in helping society weather the crisis, mentioning doctors, nurses, police officers, prison guards and sales staff in stores selling essential goods.

The pope, speaking on a religious and national holiday in Italy and other countries, also praised the many women at home helping children, the elderly and the disabled.

But, speaking from his official library rather than from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Francis said: “Sometimes they (women) risk being victims of violence in a cohabitation that they bear like a weight that is far too heavy.”

“Let us pray for them, so the Lord grants them strength and that our communities support them along with their families,” he said.

Domestic violence has risen as many countries imposed tougher restrictions on people leaving their homes to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

Domestic violence programs across the United States have cited increases in calls for help. The YWCA of Northern New Jersey said domestic violence calls have risen by up to 24%.

In Spain, calls to a helpline for victims of violence increased by 12.4% in the first two weeks of the lockdown compared to the same fortnight last year. Online consultations of the helpline’s website grew by 270%, the Equality Ministry said.

Gun control advocates in the United States, where gun stores have been allowed to remain open, have said they feared increased ownership of firearms during the pandemic could lead to more domestic violence.

In Italy, support groups said they were concerned that a sharp fall in official reports of domestic violence was a signal that women risked being even more exposed to control and aggression by a partner because victims have more difficulty communicating during a lockdown.

Because of restrictions against gatherings, all of Francis’ Holy Week services that culminated on Easter Sunday were held without public participation in either St. Peter’s Basilica or St. Peter’s Square.

Nearly 19,500 people have died of the coronavirus as of Sunday in Italy, the second-highest toll behind the United States.

Francis said he was praying for all countries affected by the pandemic but particularly for those with many victims, mentioning the United States, Italy, Spain and France before stopping himself, saying “the list is long”.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

No place to go: Syrian families fleeing Idlib stranded on the roads

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Abu Abdallah has been on the road for days. After his family fled the air strikes pounding Idlib, they moved from one village to another in northwest Syria but have yet to find refuge.

“I don’t know where to take them,” the 49-year-old farmer said from his tractor on the side of a road in Azaz town, where he is stranded with his wife, four children and 20 other relatives. “This is the first time I flee my hometown. God knows where we will go.”

The family is part of the biggest exodus of Syria’s nine-year war.

Nearly a million people, mostly women and children, are trying to escape the latest wave of violence in the Idlib region, overwhelming aid agencies.

Many have nowhere to go, trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. Families sleep outside in streets and olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold.

Some of the people fleeing Idlib have already been displaced more than once, after fleeing battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that government warplanes had struck hospitals and refugee camps as the Syrian army, with Russian backing, gains ground in the northwest, the country’s last rebel stronghold.

Before she escaped Idlib in recent days, Aziza Hadaja, 70, locked her front door.

It is the third time she has been uprooted, but in the past, she would go back home. This time, after government forces marched into her village, she does not know when or if she will return.

Along with her children and grandchildren, Hadaja is now sheltering in a makeshift tent in a field on the road out of Azaz further north.

“We came out with the clothes on our backs,” she said. “We didn’t bring a thing.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Syria displacement is worst since conflict began: U.N.

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More people have fled fighting in Syria over the past 10 weeks than at any other time in the 9-year-old conflict and the city of Idlib, where many are sheltering, could become a graveyard if hostilities continue, two U.N. agencies said on Tuesday.

Syrian government forces are shelling their way northwards, backed by Russian air strikes, driving people toward the Turkish border as they try to seize remaining rebel strongholds near Idlib and Aleppo.

Turkey, which backs the rebels and is fearful of additional refugees, has retaliated militarily, with displaced civilians caught in between.

“It’s the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in the country,” Jens Laerke from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, adding that nearly 700,000 people had fled since December, mostly women and children.

Another 280,000 people could flee from urban centers if fighting continues, including from the city of Idlib, which is packed with people who have escaped fighting elsewhere and which has not yet seen a full military assault on its center.

“It has the world’s largest concentration of displaced people and urgently need a cessation of hostilities so as not to turn it into a graveyard,” Laerke added.

Of Syria’s 17 million people, 5.5 million are living as refugees in the region, mostly in Turkey, and a further six million are uprooted within their own country.

Civilians are struggling to find shelter, amid harsh winter conditions with snow, rain and wind from Storm Ciara. Mosques are full and makeshift camps are overcrowded, said Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

“Even finding a place in an unfinished building has become nearly impossible,” he told journalists in Geneva, describing the humanitarian crisis as “increasingly desperate”.

OCHA has sent 230 trucks over two authorized border crossings in Turkey so far this month, containing food, water and hygiene equipment, Laerke added. Last month, 1,227 trucks were shipped in the biggest cross-border aid operation there since the operation started in 2014.

The U.N. Security Council renewed a six-month program delivering aid to civilians in January but stopped crossings from Iraq and Jordan to avoid a veto from Russia which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Aid workers say that is restricting their ability to help the displaced.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

U.N. says around 350,0000 people have fled Syria’s Idlib since Dec. 1

AMMAN (Reuters) – Around 350,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have been displaced by a renewed Russian-backed offensive in the opposition-held Idlib province since early December, and have sought shelter in border areas near Turkey, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report that the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate as a result of the “escalating” hostilities.

Russian jets and Syrian artillery have pounded towns and villages in recent weeks in a renewed assault backed by pro-Iranian militias that aimed at clearing the opposition.

“This latest wave of displacement compounds an already dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Idlib,” David Swanson, Amman-based U.N. regional spokesman for Syria, told Reuters.

Russian and Syrian jets resumed bombing of civilian areas in the opposition enclave two days after a ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia formally took effect on Sunday.

U.N. officials said earlier this month the humanitarian crisis had worsened with thousands of civilians on the run in Idlib province on top of close to 400,000 people who fled earlier bouts of fighting to the safety of camps near the Turkish border.

The latest offensive has brought the Russian-steered military campaign closer to heavily populated parts of Idlib province, where nearly 3 million people are trapped, according to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Toby Chopra)

‘You have to fight’: For women refugees, finding work is doubly hard

By Claire Cozens

Geneva (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the 25 years since she was forced to leave her homeland, Congolese refugee Jacqueline Zandamela has built up her own fashion business and raised four children alone after she was widowed in 2001.

It has not been easy.

A housewife until she fled conflict in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for Mozambique, Zandamela first had to learn Portuguese, then go through the long, bureaucratic process of applying for permission to work.

“It was just another reality. Hard. Far from my family,” the 52-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday on the sidelines of a United Nations conference on refugees.

“When I started to support my family through sewing, I hadn’t really thought of setting up a fashion studio.

“But because of the demand there was for my clothes, I took on some Mozambicans, and now we have 10 industrial sewing machines and four domestic ones and I work with 11 people.”

Finding work is not easy for any refugee, but women say they face particular challenges in accessing jobs, from sexism to the burden of caring for children and elderly relatives.

Many come from cultures in which women traditionally have not gone out to work, a problem compounded by issues such as domestic violence and child marriage, which disproportionately affect refugees as they grapple with poverty and trauma.

This week the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a U.S. aid agency, published a study that found women refugees also face significantly higher legal barriers to employment than men.

These range from laws that stop women entering certain industries to a failure to mandate equal pay for equal work in many countries that host high numbers of refugees. Some also restrict women’s right to work after marriage or childbirth.

Even in Germany, often cited as a model system, just 6% of refugee women work, compared to 53% of local women, according to the IRC.

Anila Noor, a Pakistani refugee in the Netherlands who campaigns for the rights of refugee women, said that for many, even the idea of going out to work was difficult.

“My mother thought I’d be married and that’s it. And then in Europe they suddenly ask, ‘what do you want to do?’. This is a new question for me,” she said.

“Every time, someone else is deciding for me, and now you’re asking what I want to do?”

GIG ECONOMY

IRC President David Miliband said the significant social and economic gains to be had from bringing more refugee women into the workforce meant it was essential to overcome those barriers.

“It’s not good enough just to say there are cultural barriers to refugees working,” he said while in Geneva for the Global Refugee Forum, a two-day conference of political, business and humanitarian leaders.

“It’s really important that we take advantage both of the traditional jobs, where you’ve got an employer, but also self-employment, home working, flexible working, and offer real opportunities to turn the gig economy into a lifeline for refugees.”

One of the key aims of this week’s U.N. gathering is to enable the more than 25 million people now living as refugees around the world to be more self-sufficient.

Dominique Hyde, director of external relations for the U.N. refugee agency, said women refugees were often the sole providers for their families.

To help them help themselves, host countries should be “providing shelter, providing education for the children so that they don’t need to be worrying about that”, she said, adding that there was a need for language and skills training.

With the average refugee now staying outside their homeland for more than a decade, aid agencies say more and more will need such assistance.

Today, with all her four children grown up and either in work or higher education, Zandamela combines running a successful fashion business with helping other refugee women navigate the challenges she once faced.

“There are refugees who come to me and I help them with translation. When they come (to Mozambique) they don’t know the language,” she said.

“And when they come to me I tell them, you mustn’t just sit back, you have to fight.”

(Reporting by Claire Cozens @clairecoz, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Rape map and murdered women – welcome to South Africa’s Republic of Sexual Abuse

By Kim Harrisberg

JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It has its own currency, passports and a blood-stained map, but this is no ordinary country. Welcome to the Republic of Sexual Abuse, the creation of a group of campaigners in South Africa, where a woman is murdered every three hours.

The fictional country is the centrepiece of an exhibition held in a Johannesburg mall that seeks to raise awareness of South Africa’s high levels of violence against women – and inspire action against it.

It was thought up by Roanna Williams, executive creative director of the advertising agency Black River FC, after she saw women protesting against the violence from her office window.

“Most women in South Africa have a story of sexual abuse,” said Williams at the exhibition, which opened on Nov. 26 to coincide with the United Nations’ 16 days of activism campaign against gender-based violence.

“We are not just trying to shock, we are showing that this is everyone’s problem and we all need to act, not just during 16 Days of Activism, but 365 days of the year.”

Recent murders, rapes and kidnappings of South African women sparked mass protests in September where women called for justice for rape survivors.

Soon after, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a five-point plan to tackle violence against women, including media campaigns, strengthening the criminal justice system, and providing training for healthcare workers and counsellors.

The exhibition, run together with women’s rights group People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA), includes a huge red map painted in fake blood with all the excuses men use to rape women – including “I was drunk”.

At the back of the exhibition, a warning sign marks the entrance to a bedroom where blood stained sheets hide behind a curtain. Recordings of cries and slaps fill the room.

“This room is where reality kicks in for people in the exhibition,” said Patricia Naha, a volunteer and counsellor with POWA, adding it showed women were not safe anywhere.

About 3,000 women in South Africa were murdered in 2018 – one every three hours and more than five times higher than the global average, according to the World Health Organization.

The number of recorded murders of women went up 11% between 2017 and 2018.

A video advertising South Africa as a tourist destination is played on repeat, with images of the country overlaid with jarring narration about sexual violence.

“Retreat to the spectacular bushveld,” a voice is heard saying over a video of zebra running through a national park. “Where women are dumped after being murdered,” the sentence continues.

Some men visiting the exhibition get defensive, said Clayton Swartz, Black River FC’s art director, but many leave taking pamphlets and asking how they can help.

“I am proud to be South African, but not with these rape stats,” said Swartz. “We want to encourage everyone to speak out.”

The exhibition, which has so far attracted thousands of visitors, is open until Dec. 10 at Rosebank Mall and the organisers are seeking corporate sponsors to help them take it across the country.

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Women seek to reclaim Delhi’s streets – but more men show up

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – How can women reclaim the streets when they fear venturing out alone?

That was the challenge faced by the organisers of a street festival in New Delhi held to encourage Indian women to reclaim public spaces this week, as the country reeled from the latest gang rape and murder to hit the headlines.

“It seemed that most women came with their families, male friends or partners,” said Kiran, a police inspector who goes by one name, of the Step Out At Night festival organised by the city authorities on Thursday night.

“We hoped women would come without fear … but maybe this needs to be done more often to make them feel safe enough to do so,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

India has a grim record of sexual violence against women, with an average of some 90 rapes reported each day in 2017, according to latest federal data.

Thursday’s event came amid angry protests over the gang-rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian near the southern city of Hyderabad last week.

Four suspects were shot dead during a reconstruction of the crime early on Friday by police who said they had tried to seize weapons. the killings drewing praise from many on social media but raised concerns over due process.

India strengthened its laws on sexual violence against women after the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus that led to an outpouring of anger.

But critics say enforcement remains weak. On Thursday, a rape victim was set alight by a gang of men as she made her way to court.

In Delhi, dubbed India’s “rape capital” due to high levels of sexual violence, hundreds of women turned out for the festival, which included music and dance performances and gender equality themed games including snakes and ladders.

One female lawmaker tweeted a photo from the festival which showed her eating street food with a small group of women and throngs of men in the background.

Nishtha Gupta, a 22-year-old Delhi University student who attended, said she had asked her brother to accompany her “because my parents feel better knowing he’ll be with me”.

“The idea behind the festival is great … to have more women be visible and present in public spaces, but that’s not going to happen overnight,” she said.

Kalpana Viswanath, co-founder of an app that provides safety-related information, said the festival was a positive first step for women to assert their right to public spaces.

“As long as there are more women in public spaces, it will be safer just by virtue of there being more women,” said Viswanath, whose app, Safetipin, was a co-organiser.

(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

Japanese women fight for right to wear glasses to work

Japanese women fight for right to wear glasses to work
By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Japanese women have taken to Twitter to demand the right to wear glasses to work after reports employers were imposing bans, in the latest social media outcry against rigid rules on women’s appearance.

The hashtag “glasses are forbidden” has been trending after a Japanese television show exposed businesses that were imposing bans on female staff.

“These are rules that are out of date,” one Twitter user posted under the hashtag, while another called the reasons given by employers “idiotic”.

One woman who works in restaurants tweeted that she was repeatedly told not to wear her glasses because it would appear “rude” and they did not go with the traditional kimono she wore.

The tweet, posted under the handle @wine_kimono last month, has since been shared nearly 13,000 times.

“If the rules prohibit only women to wear glasses, this is a discrimination against women,” Kanae Doi, the Japan director at global advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

The latest outcry came after a campaign earlier this year that demanded Japanese companies stop forcing their female staff to wear high heels to work.

More than 21,000 people signed an online petition started by a Japanese actress earlier this year that called for a ban on compulsory high heels at work, in what has been known as the #KuToo movement.

In response, a Japanese minister said dress code expectations were “necessary and appropriate” in the workplace.

Japan was ranked 110 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report, well behind other developed countries.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan

Votes for women? Not without facial recognition technology in Afghanistan
By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The first female founder of an Afghan political party has urged the country to rethink the use of facial recognition technology in elections amid concerns it stopped large numbers of women from voting this year.

Authorities photographed all voters in September’s presidential election and used facial recognition software, a measure designed to combat fraud that women’s rights activists say deterred female voters from participating.

“Women should be able to vote – it is their right. So anything that impedes that right is a problem,” the politician and women’s rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Kabul.

“Security and fraud are serious issues, but perhaps there are alternatives like iris scans that are more acceptable to women,” said Koofi, leader of the Movement of Change for Afghanistan party and a former deputy speaker of parliament.

“We have to find a way that is sensitive to their needs.”

A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said biometric images of women were taken by female staff where possible and the pictures were stored securely in a digital database.

“This was part of the election reforms we have undertaken to curb fraud and for greater transparency. In the past, men were voting in the name of women without any checks,” said IEC spokesman Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi.

“Some women agreed to have their pictures taken, others did not. Perhaps our awareness campaign on the technology did not reach everyone, but that can be addressed in future.”

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballots in September’s election after threats of violence by the Taliban who considered it to be illegitimate and warned people not to take part.

The photo requirement is particularly difficult for women, especially in conservative areas, where most adult women and older girls cover their faces outside the home and do not show themselves to men who are not their relatives.

No official data for female voter turnout in the September elections is available, but Sheila Qayumi at the non-profit Equality for Peace and Democracy in Kabul said women made up only a fraction of voters.

“They were not comfortable showing their faces in public, or were not sure how their pictures would be used,” she said.

“These cultural sensitivities must be taken into account, and women informed properly. Or we risk losing their say in the affairs of the country,” said Qayumi, whose organisation works on raising women’s participation in politics.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology in airports, metro stations and other public places around the world poses a challenge to women who veil their face anywhere, said Areeq Chowdhury, founder of London-based think tank Future Advocacy.

He said governments must ensure this is done in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner so the rights and freedoms of minority groups are not impacted.

“If there is no suitable opt-out, and women are forced to show their face in public in order to exercise their democratic right, then this is hugely problematic,” he said.

“I would seriously question the need to have such stringent voter ID requirements for any election in any country.”

Women were already underrepresented in Afghanistan’s election process, accounting for a third of more than 9.6 million registered voters, according to the IEC.

During their strict Islamist rule from 1996-2001, the Afghan Taliban banned women from education, voting and most work. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without permission and a male escort.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)