Call to stop downward spiral of Afghan Women’s rights

A CALL TO STOP THE TURBULENT DOWNWARD SPIN OF AFGHAN WOMEN’S RIGHTS  – JALAL FOUNDATION

The fragile tides of positive change that buoyed Afghan women’s rights in the past 13 years have been drastically taking an alarming direction.  On January 21, 2004, the Afghan Parliament passed a Revised Criminal Procedure Code that prohibits relatives of the accused from testifying as witness during criminal investigations. This means that women, girls and children will lose their protection from relatives who, under this law, could no longer testify against any accused family members. This will embolden family members to commit domestic violence with absolute impunity. Only the signature of the President is needed to complete the process of its enactment. Jalal Foundation and the many organizations of women and human rights vigorously advocate to stop Hamid Karzai from doing so.

But this is not the only alarming development. Months before the pull out of international security forces from Afghanistan, the situation of violence against women (VAW) in the country had already taken an ultra-ghastly spin.

The recent report of the UN High Commission for Human Rights of UNAMA reveals a 28 percent increase in VAW incidence in 2013[1]. The recent case of Sitara demonstrates the risks that Afghan women face from the very people who are supposed to be their protectors. Beaten till nearly unconscious, arms and hands broken, stabbed in the head, and nose and ears sliced off, she barely survived the attacks of her husband right in front of their children[2]. Other cases include the rape of Chaman Gul by a gang of police[3]; hanging of two women in Logar[4]; murder of two women by their sons in Faryab[5]; murder of a daughter-in-law and two grandsons by their grandfather in Ghazni[6]; murder of Shakila in Bamianl[7]; beheading of Mah Gul in Herat by her mother in law and cousin for refusing to prostitute herself[8]; and many more.  In its own record, Jalal Foundation lists 75 VAW survivors from the provinces of Jawzjan (10), Samangan (13), Badakshan (26), Balkh (6) and Takhar (10), and Faryab (10) whose cases are not included in the official counts of existing shelters. This is only one indication that there could be so many more VAW survivors missing in official statistics whose welfare and legal needs are not being properly addressed.

Daily life is like navigating a field of land mines for most Afghan women. A 2010 survey of the Trustlaw website placed Afghanistan at the top of the world’s most dangerous countries to live as a woman[9].  And the UN Women Executive Director recognized that “violence against Afghan women and girls is almost at a pandemic level, with up to 87.2 percent of women having experienced some form of violence…”[10] To make the matter worse, offenders have either been at large or have received light punishment from the justice system. Despite public indignation against it, weak leadership and political commitment remains a major stumbling block to the solution of the problem. Clearly, the hope for an enduring solution to VAW in Afghanistan cannot be realized by depending on the government alone. Offenders are emboldened by the inability of authorities to enforce the law and by the notion that the Taliban – the forebears of atrocities against women – are back in the mainstream of Afghan life.

Fortunately, not all Afghans condone violence against women.  While horizons grow dim and optimism fades in the landscape of a worsening political climate, there are still glimmers of hope that could be harnessed to promote enduring solution to VAW. At this point in time, Afghanistan needs a citizens’ crusade against VAW.   

First, every Afghan has a sister, mother or aunt who is potential target of violence. Thus, every Afghan who opposes VAW should come out, make a stand, and passionately champion its elimination in all fronts. Fathers should talk to sons and other fathers; brothers need to protect their sisters; mothers should stop violent behavior of boys toward girls; husbands should learn non-violent ways of resolving issues; and genuine love that transcends traditional concepts of family honor must be embraced. Afghans should redeem families – from being institutions of women’s abuse and murder into one that fosters care, compassion, and protection for its members.

Second, a credible, high level mechanism to serve as EVAW oversight should be put in place. This may be within the ambit of Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, headed by a charismatic, committed human rights activist, and given the authority to call upon and direct all concerned agencies of government and non-state entities to act against VAW cases when necessary. It should maintain and publicize a full data base of VAW cases and the status of prosecution of offenders. It should be adequately resourced to pursue public re-education campaigns and advance policies and laws that would accelerate the elimination of VAW throughout the country. Among such measures may include: (a) empowering local leaders and community police to intervene on-the-spot to prevent VAW or rescue potential victims, (b) authorizing people to arrest VAW offenders and surrender them to the police, and  (c) recommending the termination or suspension of law enforcers who have been remiss in their responsibilities to implement the EVAW decree.

Third, the international community should withhold at least 30 percent of their aid to Afghanistan and use it as leverage to ensure that the government adopts effective measures to prevent VAW and raise the percentage of offenders being prosecuted. A set of time-bound deliverables by government must be tied up to the release of such aid, including: (a) apprehending and prosecuting at least 30% of current offenders; (b) full enactment of the EVAW decree with its original provisions intact; (c) doubling the number of women’s shelters and their budgets; (d) promotion of VAW-free communities; and (e) termination of all police officials who have committed VAW or have been found unable to perform their EVAW duties. Moreover, the international community should consider awarding development fund incentives to VAW-free communities in the country.

International movements to end VAW, such as the One Billion Rising (OBR), must be promoted widely in Afghanistan. Jalal Foundation continues to do so by providing legal intermediation to VAW survivors who could not access help from government. It promotes the growth of informal movements of men challenging VAW and conducts trainings on the rights of survivors under the law and how they could be assisted at the community level.   It also creates pressure groups to push for the full enactment of the EVAW decree and publishes relevant articles in its weekly Freedom Newsletter which reaches 10,000 readers nationwide.

Fourth, the Legislative, Judiciary and Executive branches of government should find a permanent solution to the illegal operation of informal courts.  These courts do not operate within the framework of the law and should be declared illegal. They should be officially advised in writing by the President to desist from operating, and those that continue to perpetrate violence against women must be prosecuted in accordance with law.  People in the community must be educated to desist from bringing criminal cases to informal courts and be informed about ways to access the formal justice mechanisms of the state.

Fifth, a citizens’ crusade against VAW must be supported by all major institutions of society. The education sector must actively promote the concepts of gender equality and respect for women’s rights. Religious institutions should desist from promoting ideologies that are inimical to the well-being of women, especially those that foster gender based oppression and violence against women. Youth groups must lead in fostering a transformed culture where people, women and men alike, are equally valued and given opportunities to lead a full and satisfying life.

More importantly, Afghanistan needs leaders who pay attention to the interest of the most disadvantaged. The votes that will be cast in the next Presidential election could spell the difference between more violence against women and a general prospect for a better life.  Candidates with no clear platform for EVAW have no place in public office and Afghans should rally behind a party which will build upon the gains on human rights that were attained during the past 13 years.