KABUL, Afghanistan- A November draft of Afghan legislation that reintroduces execution by public stoning as the punishment for “moral crimes” like adultery has caused alarm and outrage in the international human rights community. The proposition is just one of a host of government actions that suggest a rollback of hard-won women’s rights gains, just as international combat forces make plans to leave Afghanistan.
In the years since the fall of the Taliban, international aid groups have made some headway in improving conditions for women in the country. Millions of girls in Afghanistan have gone to school. Many women have joined the police and armed forces. 28 percent of the country’s Parliament members are now women.
But there is ample evidence that setbacks in women’s rights have begun in anticipation of international forces leaving the country, taking attention to these issues with them.
The Elimination of Violence Against Women Act (EVAW,) which criminalizes violence against women and practices like child marriage, “baad” (the practice of giving away women or girls to settle disputes,) self-immolation, and 18 other acts including beating and rape, was enacted in 2009 but is now being passed around a conservative Afghan Parliament that threatens to unravel it. Conservative members are arguing against making rape a crime and working to abolish minimum age requirements for marriage of girls. An ex-Taliban member who now chairs the country’s Independent Human Rights Commission has called for the repeal of the entire law, saying that it “violates Islam.”
These challenges to EVAW come at a time when the Afghan government is also quietly reducing quotas for women in positions of power from 25 to 20 percent, and eliminating quotas for district-level government altogether.
The United Nations issued a report Monday that found that although reported cases of violence against women increased 28 percent in the past year, prosecutions increased only two percent. A closer look at court practices reveals that the government continues to punish women in danger instead of protecting them.
95 percent of girls in juvenile detention and about half of women in prison in Afghanistan are locked up on accusations of “moral crimes” like running away from home or sex outside of marriage.
“In reality, most [of imprisoned girls and women]have fled forced marriages or domestic violence,” Heather Barr, senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a New York Times piece. “Some are survivors of rape who are blamed by the courts for ‘immorality,’ sometimes alongside their attackers,” Barr explained.
Disturbingly, women and girls who are arrested on “moral” (and sometimes entirely unrelated) charges are subject to “virginity tests,” in which they are whisked away for vaginal examinations that will be used as evidence of their innocence or guilt. There is no opportunity for refusal. These tests are barbaric, invasive, and an obvious violation of rights, but they are also bad science, as there is no way to accurately determine a woman’s sexual history from them. Yet these tests, along with confessions signed with a thumbprint by women who often have no idea what they say, are used as the sole evidence to support their incarceration. This is a clear violation of fair trial rights.
Given how often women, and not their attackers, are subject to court scrutiny, it is unsurprising that many more violence complaints are filed with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission than with the police. In 15 of the 16 provinces surveyed, only 650 of the more than 1,000 complaints received by the ministry were registered with police or prosecutors. Of the cases that actually reached courts, the vast majority were settled by “mediation,” which rights advocates say means women were sent back to the husbands and families that abused them.
Although EVAW should have provided protection to these women, U.N. analysts found it was used in only 109 of the 650 registered cases.
Recently, proposed law revisions are said to ban victims of crime from testifying against family members, effectively preventing the prosecution of domestic abuse or underage marriage cases. If passed, these revisions will exacerbate the problematic lack of consequences for those who hurt women.
Conservative forces in the country, feeling emboldened as international forces and scrutiny leave Afghanistan, cannot be allowed to undermine advances made in women’s rights and protection. Aid is important, but not enough on its own. The United States and others must make it clear to the Afghan government that these human rights abuses will not be tolerated, and move to politically support those fighting for women in the country.
Do your part to protect women and girls today by starting with Afghan women’s rights. Donate to Women For Women, an organization that helps women in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) rebuild their lives after violence. Call your congressional members to encourage them to push for action to protect women and girls in Afghanistan.
– Sarah Morrison