Afghanistan lagging on enforcing law protecting women against violence

Afghan women's self-help group.
Afghan women's self-help group.
Afghan women’s self-help group.
Canada in Afghanistan

The landmark law enacted in Afghanistan four years ago is providing little protection for women.

In 2011, Afghanistan was found to be the worst place to be a women, according to a survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The greatest threats to Afghan women, according to those polled, were non-sexual violence, a lack of access to economic resources and health.

The establishment of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in August 2009 was heralded as an important advance for the safety of women. Some twenty-two acts were included in the law ranging from forced marriage and forced self-immolation to violence and the practice of giving away women to settle a dispute.

Yesterday, a report released by the UN raised serious concerns with the progress over the past four years.

“Implementation has been slow and uneven, with police still reluctant to enforce the legal prohibition against violence and harmful practices, and prosecutors and courts slow to enforce the legal protections in the law,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

An increase in registered cases of forced marriage, domestic violence and rape increased by 28% in 16 Afghan provinces since last year, says the report. However, the use of the law to indict offenders was only used 2% more frequently. The very law that was designed to protect women is infrequently used.

Rather than use the law and its accompanying punishments, the investigation found that alternative forms of justice were employed.

“What we found is that, instead, the police and prosecutors were mediating more cases of violence against women,” said Georgette Gagnon, director of the human rights unit at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), speaking on behalf of Ján Kubiš, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Afghanistan.

The use of mediation is concerning, according the report, because it does not punish offenders for their acts, nor does it provide additional protection for women.  Women were often pressured to drop legal action or advised that pursuing a case would be difficult. Furthermore, the mediated agreements have little to no enforcement mechanism, meaning perpetrators could go on without punishment and victims are at risk of future attacks.

An estimated that 35% of women in the world have experienced intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Social norms and cultural restraints are among the reasons why sexual violence tends to be under-reported in Afghanistan.By reporting on the state of the law and its enforcement, the UN hopes to place pressure on Afghan leaders to extend protections for women.

“Afghan authorities need to do much more to build on the gains made so far in protecting women and girls from violence,” urged Pillay.

At the same time, there are renewed threats to the strength of the already weakly enforced law. A parliamentary debate in May sought to eliminate sections of the law criminalizing forced and child marriage and other “un-Islamic” provisions.

Despite the challenges, women are coming forward and calling for justice. Providing support to the courts and police will help them deal better with the increase in reported cases of violence against women. That must come from the government.

“The Government needs to step up and provide that justice,” said Gagnon.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.