Prosecuting gender-based violence in Afghanistan

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A patient at a UNFPA-supported medical center in Malalai. © UNFPA Afghanistan/Sahar Jahish

BALKH, Afghanistan – It was after midnight and Bibi Gul* was in critical condition when her husband and eldest daughter brought her to a hospital in Balkh, a province in northern Afghanistan.

When the nurses examined her, they discovered that her body was covered in deep purple bruises, and that naswar, a powdered tobacco snuff, had been forced into her vagina. Though she was barely conscious and could not speak, the nurses realized that Bibi Gul's injuries were likely the result of gender-based violence, and immediately called the UNFPA-supported Family Protection Centre (FPC) based nearby in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh.

Several FPC counsellors rushed to the hospital. Suspecting that Bibi Gul's husband had inflicted the life-threatening injuries, they sent him to the pharmacy to get medication for his wife. "We kept the daughter with us so that she could recall what happened that night," says Munira, one of the FPC counsellors. "In the meantime, we updated the police."

The young girl told the counsellors that her father had planned to kill her mother that night, and had prepared everything in the basement of their house: a knife, ropes and plastic bags. However, at the last minute, as Bibi Gul lay on the floor, her condition deteriorating, he had picked her up and taken her to the hospital.

"I don't know why my husband changed his mind. All I know is that God saved me," says Bibi Gul, adding that it wasn’t the first time he had abused her. “He used to take me to the basement when the kids went to bed and beat me until I was covered in blood. He would repeat this every night.”

Providing justice

Most women who suffer gender-based violence in Afghanistan do not report the abuse, making its prevalence difficult to estimate, but according to one national report, approximately 87 per cent of Afghan women experience at least one form of either physical, sexual, or psychological violence, and 62 per cent experience at least two.

In 2009, Afghanistan’s National Assembly passed a bill criminalizing violence against women for the first time. However, despite the law, less than 10 per cent of abuse cases that are formally reported to the police or the Department of Women’s Affairs are prosecuted. Therefore, many women who do come forward rely on decisions made by local councils who operate outside the state’s control, known as the informal justice system, for the limited recourse they do have.

But with the help of the FPC, Bibi Gul’s husband was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail.

Working to empower survivors

After Bibi Gul had recovered from her injuries, FPC relocated both her and her children to a new home near the centre, which Bibi Gul continued to visit regularly for counselling and medical services.

The first FPCs in Afghanistan were established in Kabul and Nangarhar in 2013, with the support of UNFPA. Additional branches have since opened in Herat, Balkh, Bamiyan and Baghlan, and six new centres are scheduled to launch this year.

In 2013, a total of 1,600 cases of gender-based violence were reported to the Afghan government nationwide. In 2015, FPC formally reported 1,900 incidents itself. These cases included instances of physical and psychological violence, rape, forced or early marriage and denying women resources, such as food and clothing.

In addition to counselling and medical services, the FPCs provide survivors of gender-based violence with legal services, and they collect forensic evidence to aid in prosecutions. The centres also link women to organizations that can assist them in generating enough income to live on their own, though few Afghan women who are subjected to violence at home feel able to divorce or leave the perpetrator.

UNFPA is also supporting training police, judges and prosecutors to better respond to and prosecute cases of gender-based violence and health workers to recognize, treat and report cases – as Bibi Gul's nurses, who had received training on the topic, did so swiftly.

“Working with UN and other partners, we have developed global standards for essential services for women and girls subject to violence and comprehensive technical guidelines to help countries implement them,” says UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. “This is not only a women’s issue; it affects all of us. As long as the dignity and well-being of half of humanity is at risk, peace, security and sustainable development will remain out of reach.”

*Name changed to protect identity.