In Afghanistan, despite a pledge from the government to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality, more than 87% of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse. According to the United Nations, between 60 to 80 percent of marriages are forced.
In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission registered about 2,269 cases of violence against women. In January of 2010 alone there were 235 cases.
The pandemic levels of violence against Afghan women are perhaps most startling because the abuse is committed under a shroud of normalcy. Women are beaten in public and girls are raped as they walk to school and the public response is silence.
Access to education has a direct affect on women in Afghanistan and their lack of knowledge about basic rights has subjected them to broad discrimination. About 456 schools have so far been torched down, and 60% of girls eligible for school have been deprived of education. Most Afghan women interviewed in the context of a 2009 UN report underlined that they felt powerless when it came to expressing their choice in matters regarding their sexuality. This report concluded that most women were not aware of the law and redress mechanisms, including ways to complain about rape.
Unfortunately, educating women about the laws written to protect them is not a sufficient solution to the problem. Despite the legal obligation, the government rarely responds to cases of violence against women. At least two social and political female activists were killed last year and the Afghan government has failed to successfully prosecute these cases.
The obstacles faced by women seeking justice or protection are many-fold. Discrimination against women in Afghanistan is rampant. UNAMA interlocutors in 2009 reported believing that police and judicial officials are not aware or convinced that rape is a serious criminal offense. Whether it is due to a dearth of resources-few trained female staff and forensic expertise to investigate rape cases-or a prejudice against women, investigating a rape case is rarely a priority.
The shocking reality, according to many women, is that reporting a case to the police may actually further endanger them since it raises their profile.
One example is the story of Najeeba. Fearing for herself and her family, Najeeba contacted the police after receiving threatening phone calls. The caller, Rafiq, was identified by investigators, but they decided that they could not do anything to him. Rafiq was eventually arrested for other offenses and informed by the police that Najeeba had reported the threats she had received from him. As a result, Najeeba is receiving phone calls from other men, threatening to kill her as soon as Rafiq is released from prison.
To avoid being in a similar situation, many women adopt their own preventative safety measures; such measures include maintaining their anonymity when leaving the home, restricting their movements, or even ceasing outside activities altogether. The response of authorities, or lack thereof, to reports of abuse or threats seems to reinforce the notion that the perpetrators of violence are immune from punishment.
In addition to widespread discrimination and a limited concern from authorities regarding complaints of rape or abuse, women in this country also suffer from a lack of legal representation. A March 8, 2010 article by Amnesty International quoted Mashia Faiz, a defense attorney for a women’s rights NGO, who proclaimed that NGOS are the only people who defend most female victims, as the government-funded defense attorneys mainly service men. In her opinion, the current system does not help women, but hurts them. This is because judges and police officials don’t care about what happens to women and they don’t follow the laws. Faiz described feeling constantly threatened because of what she does, especially when working in provinces outside of Kabul. Filing a formal complaint with the government or police is futile.
Noor Marjan, the Acting Director of the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Centre, explained in the same article that their shelter is important because police stations don’t have designated places for women. In the current holding places, women are abused and raped by police. Police not only widely dismiss allegations of abuse but often advise victims to return to their abusive spouses and family. Since the current criminal justice system does not see violence against women as relevant grounds for seeking or granting a divorce, many women have no choice but to do just that.
Violence against women in Afghanistan is a complicated issue that needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives. The good news is that there is a bill in both the House and Senate that endorses a holistic approach to combating violence. The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) would increase legal and judicial protection in a multitude of ways: by supporting U.S. foreign assistance programs that will back local efforts to both establish and enforce laws that prevent and address violence against women and girls; by promoting coordinated, efficient survivor services; by encouraging programs to provide personnel training across the legal and judicial sector, for police, lawyers, corrections officers, court advocates, judges, and judicial officials; by buttressing programs to help women and girls of victim gain access to the legal system, ensure safety and support throughout the legal process, and develop confidential mechanisms for reporting violence; and finally, by improving much-needed coordination between the health, legal, and other sectors. If the United States is as dedicated as it claims to be in ending violence against women and girls then this bill is the best tool for making our commitment to this issue a diplomatic priority. The women of Afghanistan deserve no less.