Afghan law barring violence against women stalls, UN says

Measure banning 22 harmful practices against women and girls, including rape and child marriage, faces challenges

Afghan women listen to a speaker at a political gathering in Kabul on Sept. 26, 2013.
Shah Marai/AFP

While Afghan women and girls are increasingly coming forward to report incidents of abuse, signifying greater awareness of a landmark law barring violence against them, prosecution of those crimes isn’t rising along with it, a U.N. report revealed on Sunday.

The report showed that 650 incidents of violence against women and girls were reported to authorities across 18 different Afghan provinces between October 2012 and September 2013, representing a 28 percent increase from the previous year.

However, the Elimination of Violence Against Women law (EVAW) was applied to just 109 of those reported incidents, or 17 percent of cases, representing a meager 2 percent increase from the 15 percent of reported cases to which EVAW was applied the year before.

EVAW, which was implemented by presidential decree in 2009, bans 22 different harmful practices against women and girls – including rape, physical violence, child marriage, forced marriage and the denial of rights to education or work.

Adding to the report, the Afghan Department of Women’s Affairs recorded an additional 1,019 incidents of violence against women and girls — meaning it had tracked far more cases than police and prosecutors. This gap, the authors wrote, “suggests that many Afghan women (and their families) still remained reluctant to approach police and prosecutors with their complaints.” In fact, “most incidents of violence against women still remain largely underreported, especially in rural areas, due to social norms and cultural restrains,” the report said.

“The landmark law on the Elimination of Violence against Women was a huge achievement for all Afghans,” Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a released statement. “But implementation has been slow and uneven, with police still reluctant to enforce the legal prohibition against violence and harmful practices, and prosecutors and courts slow to enforce the legal protections in the law.”

Legal troubles

Legislative developments within the last year have set back efforts to curb violence against women and girls, the report's authors said. In May, for example, the Afghan parliament held a debate in which some members criticized portions of the EVAW law as “un-Islamic” – specifically, its prohibition of child marriage, forced marriage and restrictions on women’s access to health care and education. 

EVAW, which was signed by President Hamid Karzai, was never ratified by parliament, and some activists fear the legislative body could amend or overturn it in the future.

The lower house of parliament also recently passed a draft criminal-procedure code which would bar a woman’s relatives from testifying in any criminal cases dealing with violence against her, with the aim of keeping abuse “private,” the authors wrote. But since violence against Afghan women often takes place in the domestic sphere, the authors argued that prosecuting the perpetrators of the violence would be virtually impossible without family testimony. As of this month, the draft code is still pending a vote in the upper house of parliament.

Furthermore, earlier this year the government reduced its quota to reserve 25 percent of elected seats for women to 20 percent, and eliminated the requirement for positions at the local level.

The report said that 2013 saw “continuing attacks on women in public life,” with two senior policewomen killed in Helmand province over the summer and another one shot on Dec. 5, and two female senators and their families attacked in August.

'A long way to go'

The authors surmised that the government’s past failure to prosecute crimes against women and girls may have contributed to its limited capacity to process current cases – but is also likely due to what they said is a pervasive pressure to resolve family affairs through mediation or other informal practices. In such cases, decisions are often made by powerful men in the community and based on religious interpretations of the law – which sometimes leave women and girls facing “further victimization.”

Women and girls who run away from home to flee abuse are sometimes considered to have attempted “zina,” an Arabic term for premarital sex, which violates religious law. Though Afghanistan’s highest court and attorney general’s office have said that women shouldn’t be punished for running away from home, authorities in three provinces continue to imprison women for it.

According to the U.N. report, the UNAMA’s field monitors had observed “negative attitudes towards the EVAW laws as well as a reluctance to apply it” among many judicial and law-enforcement officers, which “discouraged women from reporting violence perpetrated against them.”

As a means of combating violence against women and girls, the report recommended bringing more women into the Afghan police force, of which they currently constitute just 1 percent; establishing a system to track incidents of violence against them; and increasing funding and training for EVAW commissions in each province to enable more follow-up on cases.

“The government has a long way to go to fully protect women and girls through implementation of EVAW law,” the authors wrote, but that improvements are “clear, apparent and achievable.”

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