Press Briefing by Adrian Edwards, Spokesperson for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan 18 Jul 2005

News and Press Release
Originally published
Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) update

Now that the "DD" phase of the DDR process is complete, the focus has shifted towards reintegration and will remain there until mid 2006 when the entire DDR process is expected to be complete.

To date 56,706 former Afghan Military Forces (AMF) combatants have been demobilized and the work of turning the former soldiers and officers into productive civilians continues at a high rate. To date, 54,995 personnel have entered the reintegration phase.

The collection of heavy weapons is now complete, with 36,431 heavy and light weapons having been collected.

Ceremony held to honour former AMF commanders

A ceremony took place this morning to award Afghan Military Forces commanders who have participated in the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme with a certificate of recognition and a financial redundancy package. This is the ninth ceremony of its kind. This programme, which uses Japanese funds, provides former commanders with a one-year stipend to help their return to civilian life.

This brings the number of commanders who have benefited from this financial assistance programme to 308.

[Among those at the ceremony were Deputy Minister of Defence Nooristani, the ambassador of Japan, UN Deputy Special Representative Filippo Grandi, Peter Babbington of the Afghanistan New Beginnings Programme. Speeches were given praising the commanders for collaborating with DDR and recognizing their past contributions in fighting for this country.

A former deputy commander of the 9th corps, Sahki Wasik, also spoke at the ceremony, thanking the international community and encouraging his fellow soldiers to embrace civilian life.]

Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG)

With the Disbanding of Illegal Armed Groups programme, which is the new phase in broad disarmament, 7,737 weapons are verified as having been handed in so far.

Employment Services FAQ's answer returning refugees employment questions

With so many refugees returning to Afghanistan, many will be seeking work. To that extent the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has produced a circular with answers to questions on Employment Services Centres (ESC).

Information on who can use the service centres, the procedures used to apply for a job, and how to get help writing a resume are fully explained.

Copies of the circular can be read in English, Dari, and Pashto.

JEMB press conference on public outreach activities

The Joint Electoral Management Body is holding a press conference tomorrow on public outreach activities during the coming election. These include a mobile cinema, mobile theatre, multi-media & grassroots civic education programmes. The press conference is tomorrow, Tuesday July 19th, at 1:30pm, at the JEMB electoral compound on Jalalabad Road.

Voter registration period for returnees now underway

Yesterday the JEMB launched its Voter Registration for Afghan refugees who are returning to Afghanistan. The voter registration period, which runs from July 17th to September 8th, is being done with UNHCR assistance.

Read the press release in English, Dari and Pashto.

AIHRC Human Rights Workshop

As part of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission's (AIHRC) three-year Action Plan, a five-day workshop was launched yesterday by the AIHRC regional office in Bamyan. The workshop aims at training 25 Afghan National Police trainers of the Bamyan Police Training Centre, National Security Directorate and traffic police personnel on human rights.

Herat: National Solidarity Programme, construction and capacity building

Construction work has begun in the flood-prone area of Gozara district of Herat province - 16 culverts and a bridge are being built under the National Solidarity Programme to improve transportation links and diminish the effects of flooding.

Meanwhile, as part of the on-going efforts to strengthen the capacity of the local police in Herat, 16 police officers from the Passport Department undertook a three-day long training programme, supported by the German Police Project, on passport control and ID issuance.

Lastly, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Department of Education, has launched a capacity building program targeting primary school teachers in Herat. [The eight-day course will cover issues such as lesson preparation, child centered learning and violence and discipline. The introduction of Afghan literature, folklore and poetry into lessons is also encouraged to make learning more interesting for Afghan children.]

Government task force for combating violence against women releases three-month work plan

The Inter-Ministerial Task Force on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (VAW) has recently (July 11th) endorsed a three-month work plan to address violations of women's rights in Afghanistan.

The work plan identifies deficiencies in Afghanistan's justice system and mandates the action different agencies and government ministries must take by October 12th, 2005 to improve the judicial and law enforcement systems.

Click here to read the UNIFEM press release.

Press statement by Professor Yakin Ertürk, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on violence against women, its causes and consequences

Good afternoon everybody and thank you for coming out to this press conference. Your presence here is very encouraging for me because the media coverage of issues directed towards violence against women is a major step towards raising awareness about this problem.

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 Taliban 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, many 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:

- prioritizing 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.

Biographical Note:

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 visited El Salvador, Guatemala, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Darfur, the Russian Federation including North Caucasus, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Mexico. In 2006 she plans to visit countries in Africa and Western Europe.

Questions & Answers

Question: You mentioned several violations. Can you underline some of the very serious acts of violence against women in Afghanistan? That is the first question. My second question is the fact you may have talked to different women candidates. In the last several weeks they have expressed their concern regarding their security and also there are some traditional problems where they cannot openly campaign in public. Don't you think the election players and the United Nations should have had additional measures for the women candidates to ensure their full participation while running for office?

Special Rapporteur: I will talk about elections in a moment. With regards to violence, yes of course I will elaborate in my report, but I think we all know what violence is, from verbal violence to psychological violence to very severe forms of physical violence. And we also hear your reports on cases of women who are condemned to be killed by local councils. There was the situation of Ameena, not too long ago, who was executed - she was stoned to death or beaten to death because there was a fatwa by the local authorities for her murder. This is the context in which women are living their lives and of course the uprootedness due to years of conflict in this country, not only uprootedness of values, but physical uprootedness, has made the situation far more complex being internally this place, especially refugees. There are all forms of safety nets stopped to function. There are no protective mechanisms anymore. In all societies we generally attribute problems of violence against women to tradition. But traditions and cultures have very positive elements which provide protection for the weak women and children. But the process that Afghanistan has gone through, I think has destroyed all these mechanisms and women have become totally at the hands of those who hold power. And of course men have also suffered from these atrocities. But if women and children are the least able to protect themselves when the rule of power dictates, I think this is the context in which I will try and identify. In Herat you are probably aware of the situation of self-immolation. This is a form of violence. These girls are burning themselves to death because they have no other option in life to escape violence. They are committing suicide in order to escape a life full of violence, not only from their husbands or fathers, but sometimes even by mothers-in-law, surprisingly. So being women does not free one from exercising violence unfortunately. It's the different power relationships that individual women find themselves in that put them in extreme forms of violence. And I'm told by many authorities that there are strong economic factors underlying this. I was just told at a government meeting a while ago that girls are married off to families who in turn use them to sell their blood, or use them as prostitutes. These are forms of violence. While we can understand the underlying causes, I don't think we can tolerate it. We must attack it until the underlying causes change.

Now with regard to the election, of course my mandate is not directly relevant to the elections, but I have met some candidates and have heard such claims. Now there are those who are mandated to ensure security and I call on them to do their job.

Question: Have you spoken to local or rural women? If so can you tell us any of the stories of anyone who has been talking in terms of violence against them?

Special Rapporteur: Unfortunately I didn't go beyond the centres of Kandahar and Herat. I was not able to go to the countryside simply because my mission is restricted to a very short period. But I did meet many women in three areas. I did visit women in prison, so I got many testimonies and also I visited the shelters. And so I have large numbers of testimonies from women and girls who have been direct victims of violence. And I will describe some of these issues, in depth, in my report.

Question: Can you not describe one for us?

Special Rapporteur: I will give you one very dramatic example which affected me tremendously. This is an eight-year-old girl, and everybody who has been hearing about this from me for days, and I will keep on talking about this girl and follow up on it after I leave Afghanistan, she is under protection now. She was sold by her mother at the age of six on the pretext of marriage. I'm saying under the pretext of marriage because neither your Civil Law nor the Sheria can accept that a six-year-old girl is marriageable. This girl and others like her that I have talked to, who were not lucky enough to end up in a protective area, are abused physically as well as sexually. Not only by the designated husband, but until the designated husband grows up, other males in the family may abuse her. This little girl is lucky in that early on she managed to be put under protection. But now the issue is what will happen to her. I spoke to the Chief Justice who told me that she will be placed with a family where her safety will be ensured and when she becomes 15 she will be asked whether she agrees with this marriage or not. And if she says no, the marriage will be annulled. I don't think this is good enough. Because until she's 15, this girl's life will be irreversibly damaged. So this is one vulnerability in which physical, psychological, and sexual violence awaits these girls. So it is a form of enslavement isn't it?

Perhaps I can give you one more example to illustrate the diversity. The situation of widows is also very precarious. One woman told me that when her husband died, her brother-in-law confiscated the house that was legally owned by the husband. She and her three children are now in a very difficult situation because the brother-in-law and his family moved into this house and they are constantly beating her, insulting her, and trying to force her out of the house and she has no where to go or no way to sustain her livelihood and her children. So these are just some examples of the vulnerabilities some women are facing.

Question: My question relates to the previous years of civil wars. In the previous years of civil wars, before and during the Taliban, in Kabul there was a lot of abuse against women, do you have any action or recovery for those past crimes?

Special Rapporteur: That is a good question. I must say that I did not receive any information to indicate that there is a sufficient attack to deal with past crimes, although I'm sure there are things being done. Most of my meetings dealt with the current situation and how we can move forward. But that is a very valid question and unfortunately I don't have a clear answer to that. But maybe I can just add to that that many people who I spoke to expressed a great deal of disillusionment and discontent that many of these past criminals are now living with impunity and some of them are even holding very legitimate posts and are running for the Parliament. So this seems to be a major problem and I don't know exactly what the government program is in dealing with these issues, to be honest.

Question: Would you say that the violence against women is based on the ambiguity of the rule of law in Afghanistan? What kind of specific strategy do you propose for the government of Afghanistan because what we see from the three years that the national support to strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan looks very weak, so due to the violations of women's rights and nothing has been developed in the form of the laws to support women's rights. What can be done, through the United Nations, to support this kind of activity?

Special Rapporteur: Well this is precisely what my report will try to tackle so it would be very difficult for me to give you a comprehensive answer to that. But given the overall destruction of institutions, values, etc, in this country, we need to have clear strategic and practical objectives defined. And our strategic objective is of course guided by human rights principles and our practical objectives are guided or constrained by the realities in this country, but our choices as UN, international, government, should be to ensure that our practical interventions are devised in view or our strategic objections, so that while we are delivering immediate interventions and immediate services, we create new contradictions in society which can open up new space to enlarge the ability of strengthening the system not only the state system but also at the very grass roots level. Building a state means not only creating institutions and creating citizens. This is the major challenge. How do we develop our programs so that we contribute to both the development of state mechanisms as well as the development of individual citizens who relate to their government in a very specific way? So this is a general rule of thumb that I can talk, but I think we need to elaborate this general perspective within the mandate of each organization.

Question: Most of the violations taking place against women, especially in rural areas, are based on customs. How optimistic are you that you can reform these customs, especially as there have not been any great changes in the situation of women outside of the cities and in rural areas in Afghanistan over the last three years?

Special Rapporteur: I have a different approach to this issue. Customs and traditions change and are dynamic. I don't think that the problem is really about customs. 'Whose custom?' I would ask you, and who speaks on behalf of custom or determines what custom is - the one who holds the power. We need to demystify this idea that violations are embedded in custom. Of course, customary practices and so forth develop over time and gain a life of their own and then we start calling them culture and custom and tradition. But who is sustaining them, who is protecting these norms. It is not the ones who are victimized and yet they are part of custom and tradition as well. In Afghanistan I think we can deal with these traditional norms that have gained a life of their own. But what seems to be a major obstacle is that those who hold the power to speak on behalf of culture say 'this is our tradition so death to you who have violated our custom'.

In all parts of the world women's subordination has been caused by unequal power relationships which we call patriarchy. And under conflict situations and extreme underdevelopment, patriarchy makes power relations more acute. How do we deal with it? How has the world dealt with it - it is a struggle of humanity for centuries to out smart the Zalim. I think we just have to hit it head on.

Question: Both the international community and the Afghan government have shown themselves to be either incapable or unwilling to defend human rights in general and that includes men's rights. There are a number of known warlords running for parliament. In this context what practical measures could be taken to 'open space' as you suggested, for change at the grass roots level.

Special Rapporteur: I think the problem that you are posing does not have practical measures - what practical measures are there for warlords? Although at the grass roots level I have been informed about some programmes that various agencies are implementing. The FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] this morning talked about a programme they have to empower widows. These are of course fragmented projects and also the rural reconstruction ministry has a National Solidarity Project that has a lot of potential if implemented properly. But these in themselves do not solve the problem no doubt. But through such interventions you can provide alternatives to people who have none. And also give them some options including their livelihoods. So these are some practical measures that I found ongoing at the moment. On another level related to women's issues - I think the protective interventions such as prisons offering literature courses to women. Although these might seem like trivial things that do not add up to anything, do we - and by we I mean the UN agencies - do we have the power and authority to address the more global issues. I don't think so. Given the realities, our practical interventions have to be very limited in nature. But always keep in mind the strategic objectives of opening new space through these practices. So creating contradictions, using dialectics that is an incredible force in opening new space in society.

Question: You touched upon the case of Ameena, which was the first public execution after the Taliban. More than several months since this incident, and nothing has happened. If it had been at the time of the Taliban and a woman was publicly executed, the whole world would have criticized the government. What has the follow up from the government, and the United Nations in particular, been?

Special Rapporteur: Good question, keep asking this. From my side, I am following this case and I have written to the government of Afghanistan asking about this case along with two other cases. I will keep asking them but I haven't received a response yet. I have asked the Minister of the Interior who told me that in all the three cases, including Ameena's, they have apprehended suspects and the cases are with the prosecutor's office. We should keep asking these questions.

Question: A woman was publicly executed. Would you comment on this?

Special Rapporteur: There is no excuse we cannot tolerate public execution or private execution. The violence has to come to an end. There is no reason under the sun that can legitimize any of these acts, if the government is going to gain legitimacy and credibility it has to find ways of dealing with these issues. Because we cannot have a government that says I have no authority there. This is a contradiction in terms. This is not what the government is saying no doubt, but its institutions have to be reinforced and developed and law enforcement is an absolute must. We need legislative reforms as well, but even with the existing laws they have to be enforced and perpetrators have to be prosecuted. Unless this is done, the confidence in this whole reconstruction process will be jeopardized. And we cannot guarantee that the international community can be there to sustain stability. So I am outraged.

Question: How do you verify the participation of women in the parliament? Are there enough women and if they go to the parliament can they defend their rights there?

Special Rapporteur: In my personal opinion, quantitative representation of women in parliament is only a surface solution. Although I welcome it, the problem doesn't end there. This is why I am a little bit worried that everybody is focused on the election and the idea of having more women there. Yes this is important, but the main problems are the source of the problems. So we should not be just satisfied with 100 women in the parliament - this is only one indicator. Generally by international standards they say a critical mass of women in parliament, which is around 30%, is needed for them to be effectively involved. But I know of cases, particularly in underdeveloped countries, where through the policies of governments they were able to achieve a critical mass of women in parliament. However because women were not empowered and because mentalities had not changed, these women were not given enough space to operate. So whilst encouraging women in parliament in Afghanistan is important, particularly from a symbolic point of view, women's empowerment and changing the way that people perceive women is very important. They all have to go together I think.