Afghanistan: Interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women

By Golnaz Esfandiari
Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, says forced marriages are the prime source of violence in Afghanistan. Erturk returned last week from a 10-day visit to Afghanistan, where she met with judges, prosecutors, aid workers, and women living in shelters and prisons. In an interview with RFE/RL, Erturk says violence against women -- in both private and public life -- remains dramatic in Afghanistan.

Prague, 26 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Yakin Erturk, a sociology professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, was appointed to the UN human rights post in August 2003.

Since then, she has visited a number of countries, including Russia, Iran, Sudan, the Palestinian territories, and most recently Afghanistan.

Professor Erturk told RFE/RL that among all these countries, Afghanistan faces perhaps the most daunting challenge in terms of women's rights. She says poverty, lack of education, and the damage left by decades of conflict are often cited as the prime causes for the current situation in Afghanistan.

"Little girls as young as 6 years old can be married off in return for bride money."

"Afghanistan is very unique in terms of the destruction it has experienced, physical as well as social destruction. All of the countries that I have been to have a working system -- we may not be satisfied with the way it is working, we may be critical of the legislative structure, and in many countries of course there is the problem of gender discrimination, but there is at least a system within which one can work and which offers ways to intervene and improve things. In Afghanistan, this is lacking," Erturk said.

During her trip to Afghanistan, Erturk visited Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar, and met with government and judiciary officials, as well as members of nongovernmental organizations.

She says the majority of the people she met pointed to forced marriage and child marriages as the primary source of violence against women.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) estimates that between 60 percent and 80 percent of marriages in the country are forced marriages which the woman has no right to refuse. Many of those marriages, especially in rural areas, involve girls below the age of 15.

The UN rapporteur on violence against women says forced marriages make it far more likely that women will be subjected to domestic violence, including sexual abuse.

"Little girls as young as 6 years old can be married off in return for bride money, and of course this is a very exploitative, vulnerable situation. So this seems to be the root of the problem, but of course we have to put it in the context of Afghanistan's overall destruction, where not only physical infrastructure but the social fabric of the society has been seriously damaged. All protective mechanisms have withered away. So a rule of power has really become reinforced at all levels. And of course, women and children -- who hold the least power -- have suffered the most," Erturk says.

Erturk says for the majority of Afghan girls and women, there is no alternative to enduring the violence they encounter. Afghanistan's law-enforcement and judicial systems offer no special protection from female victims of violence, and officials often subject such women to humiliation before returning them to the abusive environments from which they are trying to escape.

Many of the women in the country's prisons are wives who have run away from home or been charged with adultery. Erturk says these women have little reason to expect their lives will improve.

"When a woman is away from home, even if it's not her fault, her reentry into normal life is very difficult, because she's already been tarnished with a stigma that she is no longer pure -- especially the runaways, who have dared to run away from their husbands or their abusive fathers. They have no place to go," Erturk says.

Despite the devastating statistics about violence and abuse against women and Afghanistan, the UN rapporteur told RFE/RL that some progress has been seen in the country during the past three years.

She says Afghanistan's new constitution, which calls for equal rights between men and women, is a "promising sign."

"The constitution also places a responsibility on the government to comply with international human rights law, and there is also a quota system for women in the electoral process. In addition to this, they have created the Ministry for Women's Affairs, which is doing considerable work, but it needs to be strengthened. Another very positive sign I found was the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which is doing really invaluable work in defending human rights and providing options for people who are searching for help," Erturk says.

Erturk says the elimination of violence against women should become a priority in Afghanistan.

She believes that those involved in organizing child marriages should be prosecuted and punished. She also says that international aid to Afghanistan should be contingent on respect for human rights and protection for women and children. She says the global community entered Afghanistan with a lot of commitments and moral claims. Now it's time to produce some results.


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