Senior United Nations officials urged the Government of Afghanistan to implement legislation in line with international commitments to protect women from all forms of violence. They issued their request after the Afghan Parliament failed to ratify the Elimination of Violence Against Women law (EVAW) on May 18, 2013.
The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women banned and set serious penalties for underage and forced marriage, domestic violence, rape, forced prostitution and other abuses against women. President Hamid Karzai had passed the law with a presidential decree in 2009, but the law had to be ratified by Parliament. Failure to do so is a serious setback for women’s rights in the country.
Jan Kubis, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said, “Progress in implementing the EVAW law contributes to deterring harmful practices and protecting women from violence in their daily lives.”
Although reliable statistics are not readily available, HRW estimates that there are now approximately 600 women and girls imprisoned in Afghanistan for “moral crimes”. Those moral crimes include flight from unlawful forced marriages. “The majority of women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes” are actually victims themselves,” stated Phelim Kine, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.
Many women and girls are still forced into marriage, often at a very young age and to much older men. As a result, it is estimated that every two hours an Afghan woman or girl dies of pregnancy-related causes. This is due, in part, because they are forced to marry immediately after puberty and they give birth when their bodies still are not fully developed.
Many women leave those unhappy relationships. When this happens, however, their relatives track them down and accuse them of running away from their marriage or of zina, which is defined by Islamic Law as unlawful sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. Some women have been convicted of zina after they were raped or forced into prostitution.
Even if charges are not proven, women suffer from invasive medical examinations (“virginity tests”) and severe damages to their credibility and reputation. “Coerced ‘virginity’ examinations are a form of sexual assault,” stated Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia Director. Only rarely the police and the justice system investigate claims of abuse cited by women as their reason for fleeing home.
In Afghanistan, there were expectations that more than ten years after the fall of the Taliban, women’s rights –which had been systematically abused during the Taliban’s rule- would be respected. However, a recent investigation by the Independent Media Consortium Productions (IMCP) shows a significant surge in violent acts against women. They range from sexual assault to beatings and murder.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) recorded 200 cases of murder and rape between January and September 2012, compared with 89 in 2011. However, there hasn’t been any significant progress in punishing the offenders.
Although there has been increased participation of women in Afghanistan’s social, educational and political life, prejudices and ineffectual application of laws continue to exact a heavy toll on women. While women who flee abuse often end up incarcerated, the men responsible for those abuses frequently enjoy impunity from prosecution.
To make matters even more discriminatory against women, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan has instructed the country’s judges to treat the “running away” as a crime, despite the absence of this offense in Afghan law. Prosecutors often argue that women and girls detained for “moral crimes” are of bad moral character and probably “fabricate” their stories of abuse.
Afghanistan’s justice system should investigate all crimes against women and prosecute those presumed guilty. Until Afghanistan’s justice system treats all its citizens equally, the country will continue to be a pariah among those nations that respect justice and women’s rights.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.