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SILENCE IS VIOLENCE End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan

Publication Date: 
July, 2009
Source: 
Human Rights, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Kabul

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 self2
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.

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