As the world marks International Women’s Day, ambivalence, impunity, weak law enforcement and corruption continue to undermine women’s rights in Afghanistan, despite a July 2009 law banning violence against women, rights activists say.
A recent case of the public beating of a woman for alleged elopement - also shown on private TV stations in Kabul - highlights the issue.
In January domestic violence forced two young women to flee their homes in Oshaan village, Dolaina District, Ghor Province, southwestern Afghanistan. A week later they were arrested in neighbouring Herat Province and sent back to Oshaan, according to the governor of Ghor, Mohammad Iqbal Munib.
“One woman was beaten in public for the elopement and the second was reportedly confined in a sack with a cat,” Munib told IRIN.
According to the governor, the illegal capture of the women was orchestrated by Fazul Ahad who leads an illegal armed militia group in Dolaina District. Locals say Ahad, a powerful figure who backed President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 elections, has been running Oshaan as his personal fiefdom.
“When the roads reopen to Dolaina [closed by snow] we will send a team to investigate,” said the governor, adding that he was concerned that arresting Ahad could cause instability. “We have asked the authorities in Kabul for support and guidance.”
IRIN was unable to contact Fazul Ahad and verify the charges.
“I poured fuel over my body and set myself ablaze because I was regularly beaten up and insulted by my husband and in-laws,” Zarmina, 28, told IRIN. She, along with over a dozen other women with self-inflicted burns, is in Herat’s burns hospital
Over 90 self-immolation cases have been registered at the hospital in the past 11 months; 55 women had died, doctors said.
“People call it the `hospital of cries’ as patients here cry out loudly in pain,” Arif Jalali, head of the hospital, told IRIN.
Beneath the cries lie cases of domestic violence and/or disappointment with the justice system.
“Self-immolation proves that the justice system for female victims is failing,” said Movidul-Haq Mowidi, a human rights activist in Herat.
Barriers to justice
Despite laws prohibiting gender violence and upholding women’s rights, widespread gender discrimination, fear of abuse, corruption and other challenges are undermining the judicial system, experts say.
“Women are denied their most fundamental human rights and risk further violence in the course of seeking justice for crimes perpetrated against them,” stated a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan on the situation of Afghan women in July 2009.
Orzala Ashraf, a women’s rights activist in Kabul, blames the government: “Laws are clear about crimes but we see big criminals thriving and being nurtured by the state for illicit political gains,” she told IRIN, pointing to the government’s alleged failure to address human rights violations committed over the past three decades of conflict.
“Because no one is put on trial for his crimes, a criminal culture is being promoted: violators have no fear of the law, prosecution and a meaningful penalty,” said Ashraf.
Deep-seated ambivalence to women’s rights is evident from a law signed off by President Hamid Karzai in early 2009: The Shia Personal Status Law, dubbed a ‘rape legalizing law’, was amended after strong domestic and international pressure.
“The first version [of the law] was totally intolerable,” said Najia Zewari, a women’s rights expert with the UN Fund for Women (UNIFEM). “Despite positive changes in the final version, there are articles that still need to be discussed and reviewed further,” she said.
Another example of this ambivalence is the case of the men who threw acid in the faces of 15 female students in Kandahar city in November 2008: Karzai publicly vowed they would be “severely punished” but court officials in Kandahar and Kabul have said they are unaware of the case and do not know where the alleged perpetrators are.
“Judges say the men were wrongly accused and forced to confess,” Ranna Tarina, head of Kandahar women’s affairs department, told IRIN.
Photo: Khaled Nahiz/IRIN
|Domestic violence, forced marriage and lack of access to justice force some Afghan women to commit self-immolation and suicide|
Over the past two years more than 1,900 cases of violence against women in 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces - from verbal abuse to physical violence - have been recorded in a database run by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and UNIFEM.
One recorded case is the murder, by her in-laws in Parwan Province north of Kabul, of a young woman who had refused to live with her abusive husband. Another is the regular physical and mental torture meted out to a woman by her husband and mother in-law in Kabul.
“The database does not give a perfect picture but it helps to highlight some of the common miseries of Afghan women,” UNIFEM’s Najia Zewari told IRIN.
UNIFEM is keen to make the database publicly available on the internet.
“Violence against women is not a new phenomenon in Afghanistan but it is good to see crimes do not remain confined to a home and a village,” said activist Orzala Ashraf.