Silence is violence: End the abuse of women in Afghanistan

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is widely known and appreciated for its rich history, culture, literature and arts as well as its magnificent landscape. It is also widely known that large numbers of Afghans die, or live wretched lives, because violence is an everyday fact of life. Such violence is not openly condoned but neither is it challenged nor condemned by society at large or by state institutions. It is primarily human rights activists that make an issue of violence including, in particular, its impact on, and ramifications for, women and girls in Afghanistan. It is also left to a handful of stakeholders to challenge the way in which a culture of impunity, and the cycle of violence it generates, undermines democratization, the establishment of the rule of law and other efforts geared to building an environment conducive to respect for human rights.

Violence is pervasive throughout Afghanistan. It has diverse manifestations in different parts of the country. Violence against women is widespread and deeply-rooted as well as acute. The violence which scars the lives of a huge proportion of Afghan women and girls is rooted in Afghan culture, customs, attitudes, and practices. Afghan women have limited freedom to escape the norms and traditions that dictate a subservient status for females. Women in Afghanistan are also subjected to the violence inherent in armed conflict that has intensified in recent years and is exacting an increasingly heavy toll on Afghan civilians. Violence, in its acute form, makes it presence felt in widespread lawlessness and criminality. All these forms of violence are closely linked to a deeply entrenched culture of impunity that is, in part, an outcome of decades of conflict and indifference to a justice agenda that would also allow for a transition from, and draw a line under, a long history of egregious human rights violations.

The report seeks to put back on the agenda some of the issues pertaining to the enjoyment of all human rights by all Afghan women that are being increasingly ignored. The problems identified in this report require further discussion and public debate, with a view to informing appropriate legal, policy and awareness-raising measures. In this report, UNAMA Human Rights has focused on the following critical issues:

(a) violence that inhibits the participation of women in public life; and

(b) sexual violence in the context of rape.

These issues are but two manifestations of the violence that confront Afghans. They are reviewed in the context of the prevailing socio-political culture whereby the rights of women are bartered to advance vested interests or issue-specific agendas. This report also examines how conservative political and religious forces play a role in restricting women's rights. The controversy surrounding the Shi'a personal status law exemplifies both problems.

Findings reveal that Afghan women are subjected to an increasingly insecure environment. Women participating in public life face threats, harassment and attacks. In extreme cases, women have been killed for holding jobs that are seen to disrespect traditional practices or are considered "un-Islamic." For every Malalai Kakar and Sitara Achakzai, two prominent Afghan women who have been killed and made headline news, there are numerous women who receive threatening phone calls ordering them to stop working or threatening harm to their children. Women also receive threatening 'night letters', and are physically or verbally abused. As a result, women engage in self censorship, restrict their movements, or discontinue their work. Threats and different forms of intimidation and attacks are harmful psychologically as well as physically. In addition to the women who are directly targeted, such violence also inhibits the participation of other women in development or political processes. Attacks against female journalists deny the availability of information pertaining to issues that only they, as women, can access. Attacks against teachers and health professionals deny Afghans access to education and health care.

The pattern of attacks against women operating in the public sphere sends a strong message to all women to stay at home. This has obvious ramifications for the transformation of Afghanistan, the stated priority of Afghan authorities and their international supporters. To take but one example, that of socio-economic development in a country where 42 per cent struggle to survive in absolute poverty, it is unrealistic to anticipate significant advances when one half of the population is denied participation either at the local or national level. The effective imprisonment of women in their homes in an electoral period raises additional concerns, although it is also worth noting that 20 per cent more female candidates than before are standing in the current round of elections. Nonetheless, some female parliamentarians have indicated that, unless the security situation improves, they are unlikely to stand in parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2010. This is of obvious concern in a transitional environment as fragile as that which obtains in Afghanistan.

On the issue of rape, UNAMA's research found that although under-reported and concealed, this ugly crime is an everyday occurrence in all parts of the country. It is a human rights problem of profound proportions. Women and girls are at risk of rape in their homes and in their communities, in detention facilities and as a result of traditional harmful practices to resolve feuds within the family or community. In some areas, alleged or convicted rapists are, or have links to, powerful commanders, members of illegal armed groups, or criminal gangs, as well as powerful individuals whose influence protects them from arrest and prosecution. In the northern region for example, 39 per cent of the cases analyzed by UNAMA Human Rights, found that perpetrators were directly linked to power brokers who are, effectively, above the law and enjoy immunity from arrest as well as immunity from social condemnation.

The issue of "honour" is a socio-cultural norm that is central to the issue of rape and efforts to counter its prevalence. Shame is attached to rape victims rather than to the perpetrator. Victims often find themselves being prosecuted for the offence of zina (adultery) and are denied access to justice. The problem is compounded when communities subject female victims to lifelong stigma and shame. Moreover, society may call for, or condone, sexual violence through harmful traditional practices such as baad (the practice of handing over girls to settle disputes), or by insisting that a victim marry the rapist. There is a dramatic and urgent need for the Government of Afghanistan and society to question attitudes to rape, the larger problem of violence against women, and their complicity in a crime that destroys the life of numerous victims.

The high incidence and prevalence of violence against women pose questions about the hope and the promise felt by Afghan society upon the demise of the Taliban regime. A central message at the time, at least at the rhetorical level, was that the realisation of women's rights was long overdue. The importance of women participating in, and shaping, a political dialogue geared towards a lasting and meaningful peace was also a central theme in the period after the signing of the Bonn Agreement (December 2001).

The current reality is that the lives of a large number of Afghan women are seriously compromised by violence. Women are denied their most fundamental human rights and risk further violence in the course of seeking justice for crimes perpetrated against them. Despite the hopes expressed nearly eight years ago, the rights and aspirations of Afghan women, and the men who support them, remain largely unfulfilled. The vast majority of Afghan women suffer a significant human rights deficit; for them, human rights are values, standards, and entitlements that exist only in theory and at times, not even on paper.

The government of Afghanistan, in partnership with civil society and other actors, should provide leadership and commitment in rolling back the phenomenon of violence against women. The government must meet its responsibilities to protect, respect and fulfill women's rights, including its responsibility to end impunity through prosecuting perpetrators of violence against women and girls in Afghanistan.

Summary recommendations that concern, in the first instance, the Afghan government, as well as other stakeholders, include:

- Publicly and explicitly condemn all forms of violence against women and girls;

- Define and criminalise rape in Afghan law;

- Put in place measures that build an enabling environment and cultural ethic that inhibits rape and holds perpetrators to account and allow women to play an active role within their families, communities and Afghan society in general;

- Promote "affirmative action" measures to redress gender imbalance in society and in particular in the work place; and,

- Promote the participation of women in all decision-making processes that affect their lives and Afghan society, including with respect to peace-building and reconciliation efforts.