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Living Dangerously in Afghanistan
As the authorities look on, forced marriages and poverty contribute to a wave of violence against women.
By Salima Ghafari in Kabul and London IWPR staff (WP No. 6, 29-Jul-05)
Humaira was just 15-years-old when she died at the hands of her fiance Salim – another victim of the grim Afghan proverb that women belong either in the house or in the grave.
"It was early morning. I went out of the house to collect some firewood," said Humaira’s mother, weeping, as she was comforted by neighbours. "Someone came and told me that Humaira had been killed. I ran to my house and saw her. She had been beheaded by her fiance. I fainted."
Humaira’s crime: a real or imagined flirtation with another man.
According to interior ministry statistics, 558 women have met violent ends since the collapse of the Taleban regime. Of these, 274 were murdered and a further 284 women committed suicide.
Abdul Rahim, deputy head of the anti-crime department at the ministry, believes the official numbers - bad as they are - don’t tell the true story. "The real figure may be higher, because we don't receive crime statistics from some provinces and districts," he said.
Analysts trace the rising murder rate to the relative freedom women have enjoyed since the collapse of the fundamentalist Taleban regime almost four years ago.
During the Taleban years, women were not allowed outside unless accompanied by a male relative, and many Afghan men are reluctant to relinquish the control they had over their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters
"Women were imprisoned in their homes, but after the establishment of the interim government they were freed,” said political analyst and academic Habibullah Rafi.
“They can go to schools, universities, hospitals, even to markets. [But] women can abuse this freedom. They go out of the house and make contact with men, in the name of democracy. The government has changed the normal life of women, therefore the murder rate is on the rise."
Humaira’s killer Salim is now on the run, but observers say that even if he is caught he is unlikely to face a serious punishment as the police are largely ineffective in combating violence against women.
"When a criminal is caught, he is not punished as a warning to others," said Ghutai Khawri, a member of the Academy of Sciences. "He just comes into the court through one door and leaves through another."
Nasrin Abubaker Gross, a lecturer at Kabul University, agrees, "The police are unprofessional, and cannot bring criminals to justice. If a criminal is arrested, he is freed after two or three days, which just demonstrates the weakness of the government."
Rahim admits the force has problems that make tackling the issue of violence against women difficult. "We have a lack of professionalism," he said. "Also, bribery and corruption is common in all government offices and departments."
Afghan women face a host of dangers in their everyday lives, which the fall of the Taleban has done little to alleviate.
Tradition still holds sway in this war-scarred nation, and practices dating back centuries can be just as repressive as the baton-wielding religious police who terrorised women and men alike during the Taleban years.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, up to 80 per cent of marriages in Afghanistan are forced – a tradition that AIHRC member Suraya Ahmad Yar blames for the violence, along with poverty and the social dislocation that comes with times of great change.
On a recent visit to Kabul, Yakin Erturk, a representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, cited child marriages, many of them also forced, as another major contributor to the problem.
She called on the Afghan government to prioritise the issue of violence against women, and urged donors to link support to progress on human rights and the protection of women.
“It seems the international community has forgotten [Afghan] women and we can’t allow that to happen,” she told IRIN, the UN news agency, asking the government to prosecute those who organise and participate in child marriages and to create safe havens for women at risk.
“I urge both the Afghan authorities and the international community to recognise that sacrificing respect for human rights, in particular human rights … not only falls short of the United Nations founding principles but is also politically short-sighted.”
In a recent report on Afghan women, the human rights group Amnesty International added its voice to the chorus, saying the government must “publicly and unequivocally” condemn all violence against women and girls and commit to reforms of the justice system designed to raise standards and protect women.
Local observers agree that unless the government steps in, the violence will continue.
"The executive organs of Afghanistan do not administer justice," said Suraya Parlika, head of the All Afghan Women's Union. "The criminal walks around without fear. Even if he is arrested, he will be released using his power or money, and this encourages others to kill women or commit some other crimes."
Salima Ghafari is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.