Violence against Afghan women widespread and unpunished, finds UN report

Girls attending the community-based school in the village of Hussain Khel (file photo)

8 July 2009 – Violence against women, including rape, is widespread in Afghanistan, according to a new United Nations report, which details the extent of the problem against a backdrop of impunity and a failure by authorities to protect women’s rights.

“This report paints a detailed and deeply disturbing picture of the situation facing many Afghan women today,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said of the 32-page report issued jointly by her office (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

“The limited space that opened up for Afghan women following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 is under sustained attack, not just by the Taliban themselves, but by deeply engrained cultural practices and customs, and – despite a number of significant advances in terms of the creation of new legislation and institutions – by a chronic failure at all levels of government to advance the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

The report, launched today in Kabul by the UN and Indian actress and social activist Shabana Azmi, touches on various aspects of the scourge, including so-called “honour” killings, the exchange of women and girls as a form of dispute resolution, trafficking and abduction, early and forced marriages, and domestic violence.

It focuses on two principal issues – the “growing trend” of violence and threats against women in public life, and rape and sexual violence.

Afghan women participating in almost all sectors of public life, including parliamentarians, civil servants and journalists, “have been targeted by anti-government elements, by local traditional and religious power-holders, by their own families and communities, and in some instances by government authorities,” says the report.

Although the Afghan Constitutions includes a 25 per cent quota for female members of parliament – one of the highest such quotas in the world – the report also notes that “a number of female MPs have already indicated that due to the prevailing security situation and death threats they repeatedly receive, they will not be contesting the next national assembly elections in 2010.”

The report also details numerous attacks on girls’ schools, and on girl students – including gas and acid attacks – by “anti-government elements.”

When it comes to sexual violence, the report states that rape is both widespread and taboo, and it is the victims that are more likely to be punished than the perpetrators. “Only in a few isolated cases have public institutions taken appropriate action. In many instances, victims seeking help and justice are further victimized… Government action to address rape is woefully inadequate.”

The report notes that there is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan Penal Code criminalising rape, and a survey of convicted rapists in one Afghan prison indicated that they did not know that rape was a criminal offence.

In addition, police and judicial officials are often not aware or convinced that rape is a serious criminal offence, the report states, and “investigating a rape case is rarely a priority.”

The High Commissioner stressed that the Government has a duty to eradicate these practices, by making them illegal, educating its population and demonstrating leadership and commitment to safeguard the rights of all Afghan women and girls.

“The silence surrounding the widely-known problem of violence against the girls and women of Afghanistan must be broken,” she stated.

Kai Eide, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, emphasized that political and other leaders had to address this issue more vigorously and not leave it to human rights activists or women alone.

“The problem isn’t that violence against women is being condoned. It’s not,” said Mr. Eide. “The problem is that violence against women is not being challenged or condemned. And that has implications both for countless individual victims and for the country’s future development.”


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