Uncast Ballots

Across the world, women with the right to vote are still fighting to use it.

author : Madeline Moitozo

art : Lucy Jones

In 1913, 240 women from 22 countries gathered in Budapest.

Over the course of eight days, the seventh conference of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance debated for hours how to win the right to vote for every woman. They planned to meet again in 1915. But the outbreak of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic delayed what would have been their largest gathering to date. 

Despite these crises, the women of the IWSA kept working, publishing suffrage articles that could pass wartime censors and reach readers on both sides of the conflict. By 1920, with the war and the pandemic behind them, they met again in Geneva. 36 countries were represented, including Japan, Argentina and Uruguay—the first from outside the sphere of the U.S. and Europe. In the seven years since the last meeting, dozens more nations and states had granted universal suffrage.  

By the 1970s, women had gained the legal right to vote in 184 of 195 countries. Yet even today, common to the universal right to vote is another, subtler but powerful barrier: women’s right to vote does not automatically ensure access to exercise those rights. “Women in every country and culture have had to find their own way to social justice, dignity and sovereignty,” says Dr. Bettina Aptheker, a professor at UC Santa Cruz professor who studies feminism and anti-racism. 

Geographic, political, and social barriers often prevent rights from being exercised. In some places, women are prevented from traveling without a male escort, limiting their mobility. In others, the threat of violence or harassment in public is too risky. Poor job security can make it harder for women to take time off work or find childcare in order to vote. So does a lack of education, which leaves millions in the dark about how to vote, or even that they can. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S., Slovakia, and Albania. In honor of that milestone, Trix will publish a 5 part series examining the barriers women face in exercising their legal right to vote, and five nations where women are fighting to close the gap between legality and access.

NIGER: FINANCIAL EMPOWERMENT AS POLITICAL EMPOWERMENT

Niger has the highest child marriage rate in the world, and although women have had the right to vote since 1948, turnout has always been low. Education is severely limited, with 86 percent of women illiterate and in the dark about their role in the political process. A conservative Islamic culture limits women’s mobility and ability to make their own decisions. 

There have been, however, major pushes from local female leaders to close the gender equality gap. When Niger prepared for independence in 1958, a female wing of political parties was founded. And one of the most notable benchmarks in recent history was a protest on May 13, 1991, as Niger was transitioning from a military regime to democracy. Thousands of women gathered in the capital to voice their refusal to accept the near-exclusion of women from the transition committee. The only woman on the committee resigned in solidarity, and beginning the next year, May 13 was designated National Women’s Day. 

But change has been slow, and women have not caught up to men’s representation. So far, economic empowerment has made more of a difference. A beacon for women’s autonomy has come in the form of the Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), locally known as Mata Masu Dubara, an initiative run for the last 25 years by the humanitarian organization CARE. Each fund is made up of a voluntary group of about 20 women in a village, who contribute to a savings fund and make joint decisions on operations. They can also take out loans to start businesses and make investments.  

When women have their own income, or investments, they see themselves as more than wives or caretakers—they become leaders with their own voices.

Today there are over 25,000 around the country, covering over 13 percent of the national population. “These groups have been able to expand and be replicated because we’ve seen the way that financial empowerment translates to social and political empowerment,” says Aisha Rahamatali, who leads CARE advocacy work in West Africa. “When women have their own income, or investments, they see themselves as more than wives or caretakers—they become leaders with their own voices.” 

Hadjo is a homemaker from the municipality of Hamdallaye, about 20 miles outside Niger’s capital. Participating in her local VLSA gave her the capital to improve her cattle-raising, as well as start a peanut farm whose products she sells at the local market. As her economic stability grew, Hadjo turned to politics and was elected as a municipal councillor. “After discussing with my VSLA women, they gave me their support,” she says. The women of her community voted wholeheartedly for her, helping her succeed in a role that has enabled her to fight for their needs, and for their voices to be heard.

HONDURAS: VOTING AMIDST VIOLENCE

Considered at times the “murder capital of the world,” Honduras has endured a homicide rate among the highest globally for years due to gang violence. Voting is often a target: in the most recent presidential election, police and military squared off against members of the Barrio 18 gang, who aggressively threatened campaigners for President Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

While electoral gang violence doesn’t always target women specifically, it often determines whether they will vote. “The violence means putting the whole family at risk, and men are more willing to risk their careers and livelihoods to vote,” says Lizzy Flores Flake, Honduran Ambassador to the UN and a former congressional candidate. Flores adds that even though Honduran women have had suffrage since 1955, the country’s machismo culture suppresses participation. “Women are raised to believe their value is that they belong to a man—they belong in the home primarily as caregivers. They aren’t taught to think for themselves.” 

But many women in Honduras are campaigning to change these beliefs. Merly Eguigure is a coordinator with Movimiento de Mujeres por la Paz Visitación Padilla, which works to challenge women’s self-perception of their worth. “We break the idea they have to abide by the traditional roles that society has assigned them,” she says. (The group is named after Visitación Padilla, a Honduran feminist activist who campaigned for women’s rights beginning in the 1910s).

The women we work with no longer accept their subordination. That opens the door to political spaces and translates into votes at the ballot box.

Domestic violence is a focal point for Eguigure and her colleagues. According to the UN, 27% of women in Honduras say they have suffered physical violence at some point in their lives. Domestic violence cases have increased nearly 400 percent since 2008, with the vast majority left unprosecuted due to women not willing to testify, and a lack of formal tools and systems put in place to address them. “There is no justice for women if they experience violence, sexual abuse, unemployment, little access to education,” Eguigure says. “With violence, any role is limited. There is no democracy without justice for women. We carry that legacy in every action we take.”

To increase political participation, Visitación Padilla conducts workshops with women, especially younger generations and university students, to educate them about their rights and help them understand the power of their vote. “When many women know this power, we will transform the social structures that discriminate and make us invisible throughout history,” Eguigure says. “The women we work with no longer accept their subordination, are deciding on their bodies, and seeing they can think for themselves. That opens the door to political spaces and translates into votes at the ballot box.”

AFGHANISTAN: DEMOCRACY TAKES TIME

A century of regime changes, often with Western interference, has flipped Afghanistan repeatedly between progressive and conservative agendas. With each one, women won or lost the right to vote, meaning older generations of women there have been enfranchised and disenfranchised more than once. During conservative decades, most women couldn’t leave home without government permission, and religious and gender norms created conditions discouraging women from fully engaging in the public sphere.

Sapida Barmaki is one of many women defying this reality. On a spring day in 2014, she walked an hour across Mazar-i-Sharif, her hometown in northern Afghanistan, to get a voter ID that would allow her to vote for the first time. Women, mostly housewives, packed the rooms, waiting for the formal validation of a small plastic card. “It made me excited and proud,” Barmaki remembers thinking as she looked across the room. “I waited in line all day, but I didn’t care, because it was worth it.” When she cast her vote a week later, she did it along with seven million others, 30 percent of them women.

But her thoughts extended to the country’s many mountainous and rural regions, where the landscape creates opportunities for Taliban fighters to ambush would-be voters. “People having to walk all day to get to the polls or obtain ID [leaves] them incredibly vulnerable,” says Barmaki. Her fears about voter safety were not unfounded: in that 2014 election, insurgents created checkpoints in rural areas where they threatened and assaulted returning voters with physical violence. Amongst ongoing threats to the 2019 election, the total number of voters dropped to two million, representing just 6% of a population of 32 million. 

Despite this violence and repression, Afghan women are still guaranteed representation in office.

Despite this violence and repression, Afghan women are still guaranteed representation in office: in addition to enshrining the right to vote, the 2004 constitution mandates that 27 percent of the country’s parliament be women, and currently, women hold 28 percent of parliamentary seats (in the U.S., it’s 24 percent). 

Fawzia Koofi is Afghanistan’s first female member of parliament and Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of the lower house in Parliament. She also founded her own political party in 2019 called Movement for Change. With 60 percent of its members women, the party was partly founded because she saw the need for women to raise their voices and protect their rights. 

Women make a difference politically on a local level as well. Zarifa Ghafari became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors at the age of 26 and is well aware of her role in the fight for women’s rights–especially after the U.S. announced peace talks with the Taliban, threatening progress on gender equality.  “My job is to make people believe in women’s rights and women’s power,” she said on  Twitter

Additional cultural changes signal that women are more boldly living public lives. The Afghan ambassador to the UN and the Afghan ambassador to the United States are both women, and public venues like movie theaters are being adapted to be female-friendly. 

Progress like this heartens Sapida, who now works for Sahar, a nonprofit that educates girls in rural areas about their rights. “Democracy takes time,” she says. “My vote may not be counted today, but it will be tomorrow.”