In the course of a ten-day visit to Afghanistan I have held meetings with government officials, members of the judiciary, prosecutors, police officers, doctors, and representatives of non-governmental organizations in Kabul, Kandahar and Herat, as well as with representatives of the numerous international organizations operating in Afghanistan. Most importantly, I have visited several prisons and shelters for women and received testimonies from women who are victims of gender specific violence. I would like to thank all those who have taken the time to share their knowledge, experience and ideas with me.
The three and a half years since the fall of the Taleban have seen considerable change in the legal and institutional framework concerning the situation of women in Afghanistan. Women have played a role in the Constitutional Loya Jirga of April 2003. The Constitution enshrines the principle of equal rights for men and women, obliges Afghanistan to respect international human rights, and reserves a certain amount of seats in the legislature to women. Afghanistan has ratified without reservations the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). A Ministry of Women's Affairs was created and the current government counts three female ministers. At the local level as well, women occupy important government posts. In everyday life, girls are back in school and women are, once again, participating in the work force.
Since its creation in 2003, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has been a forceful advocate for human rights throughout the country. A few but dedicated women's organizations are working diligently for women's rights. The Government appears committed to securing that the progress made is permanent and to expanding on it.
The steps forward achieved over the last years must not, however, distract us from the fact that violence against women remains dramatic in Afghanistan in its intensity and pervasiveness, in public and private spheres of life. The following observations are only preliminary in nature, and address a few of the forms in which women are subject to gender specific violence in Afghanistan. I will submit a more extensive report to the UN Commission on Human Rights next spring.
Most of my interlocutors pointed to forced and child marriages as the primary source of violence against women. In addition to being in themselves serious forms of violence, forced and child marriages in combination with polygamy considerably increase the likelihood that women will be subjected to violence within the family, including sexual violence by significantly older males.
For the great majority of girls and women there is no alternative to enduring the violence they encounter. Unaccompanied women have no place in the public space, and are automatically suspected of being engaged in sexual offences. If they turn to the police or the judiciary for protection and redress, they are likely to face abuse and be handed back to the abusive environment. The governmental authorities and tribal councils reportedly prefer to obtain a commitment from the perpetrators that the abuse will end, while in only an exceedingly small fraction of cases will any sanction be imposed on the perpetrators of domestic violence. Many of the women in the prisons have run away from home and been charged with adultery. Once a girl or women has spent a night away from family control, this might constitute a dead end in her life. The stigma attached thereto often makes her return impossible, as she is either refused or accepted only to face punishment, often death.
Poverty, lack of education and the damage caused by decades of conflict are often indicated as the prime causes for this state of affairs. Indeed, Afghan society has suffered through years of turmoil and uprootedness. In the process, the rule of power was reinforced, putting those with the least power - women and children - at risk of extreme forms of human rights violations. Giving little girls away for bride money and exchanging daughters to settle disputes are just some practices condemning girls to a life of despair. The lack of safety nets and systems of accountability has normalized the use of violence to enforce those practices.
While reconstruction and development, economic empowerment of women, education and awareness raising can be expected to reduce the level of violence against women in the medium and long term, action has to be taken now to protect women, to save lives. The following are some measures that appear feasible in the short term:
- prioritising the elimination of violence against women in public policy;
- launching media campaigns to inform the public that forced and child marriages violate fundamental precepts of Islam;
- clearly establishing in the criminal law that those involved in the organization of the "marriage" of a girl-child commit a crime and should be subject to prosecution and punishment;
- clearly instructing the police and prosecutor's offices that girls and women who escape situations of domestic violence must not be returned to their families, unless their safety can really be ensured;
- creating, expanding and strengthening safe-havens for women at risk;
- strengthening the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the Human Rights Office of the Ministry of Interior, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and other entities mandated to protect women's rights;
- linking donor support to human rights and the protection of women.
I urge both the Afghan authorities and the international community to recognize that sacrificing respect for human rights, in particular women's rights, to the claims of stability not only falls short of the United Nations' founding principles, but is also politically shortsighted. Stability in Afghanistan can only be secured if the social fabric is rewoven from the grassroots. This in turn requires an end to the state of violence and impunity, of which the pervasive, intense violence experienced by Afghan women at all levels is a central but neglected element. The present time constitutes a unique window of opportunity that should not be missed.
Yakin Ertürk is a Professor of Sociology at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She has been serving as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women since August 2003. In this capacity, she has visited El Salvador, Guatemala, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Darfur, Sudan, the Russian Federation including the North Caucasus, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Mexico. In 2006 she plans to visit countries in Africa and Western Europe.