Gender Discrimination: The Long and Uncertain Path to Full Exercise of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan
The negotiations for peace in Afghanistan have raised the spectre of the Taliban returning to some degree of national power. Many Afghan women are concerned that their rights might be traded away or that negotiations will result in restoration of the Taliban’s rules from the 1990s. The government and the international community must stand with the women of Afghanistan and ensure women’s rights are prioritized. Their hard-won achievements since the collapse of the Taliban regime must not be sacrificed in any peace agreement.
Under the Taliban regime some of the most egregious limitations on women’s rights were enforced, which reversed progressive gender legislation and prevented women from taking part in the most basic activities. The year 2001 ushered in great hope for improvements in the lives of Afghan women, particularly in curbing gender-based violence against women. The new Afghan government was supposed to take significant steps to unwind the legal restrictions the Taliban had placed on Afghan women. Almost two decades later the situation remains unchanged for many women, and the path to full exercise of women’s rights remains long and uncertain.
Women suffered deeply during Afghanistan’s long years of war. The conflict has exacerbated gender inequalities and violence against them. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women experience at least one form of domestic violence (physical, sexual, or psychological). Most women, 62 percent, experience multiple forms of violence. The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) passed in 2009 and is a significant legislative step toward the prevention of violence against women and girls. The law criminalizes twenty-two specific acts of violence against women and outlines government obligations to take protective and supportive measures for women affected by violence. But prosecutions and convictions under the landmark law have been few.
One awful truth about post-Taliban Afghanistan is that the Afghan officials have failed to take responsibility for clear backslides in women’s rights. The lack of access to the formal justice system, poor implementation of the law, victim blaming, stigma, discrimination, overreliance on informal dispute resolution mechanisms, insecurity, and women’s economic vulnerability make it difficult for women to come forward and ask for justice. Police routinely refuse to register domestic violence cases; even cases of murder and rape often never reach the courts. Institutions and non-governmental organizations encourage, facilitate and refer cases of violence to traditional mediation mechanisms (shuras and jirgas). Furthermore, some victims of violence experience significant pressure from their families and communities to agree to mediation , rather than exercising their right to access justice through the formal system. Afghan women’s decisions in instances of violence are deeply affected by the prevailing socio-cultural norms.
Early and child marriages increase the risk of domestic violence and chances of unwanted pregnancies, death during childbirth, and mental health problems. This is while one-third of all Afghan girls are married by the time they turn 18; at least 15 percent of all Afghan girls get married before they are 16. Many Afghan girls continue to be used as compensation, a method of settlement known as “baad”. A criminal’s female relative is given to a victim’s family to fill the role of servant or bride. This harmful practice is still used to strengthen ties between rival families and resolve disputes. Girls have little say; they pay the price for an elder’s misdeeds and often face serious physical and emotional abuse. If they attempt to escape abuse or forced marriages they are tracked down for “moral crimes.” Moral crimes may include running away from home, and committing or attempting to commit zina (sex outside of marriage). “Virginity examinations” are a routine part of criminal proceedings in Afghanistan. To determine whether a woman or girl is a virgin, police and prosecutors subject them to an invasive, humiliating and scientifically invalid vaginal and anal examinations.
Following the Taliban’s ouster, Afghan women fought ferociously for equality and to reverse the damage wrought by many years of a civil war. There has been advancement of women’s rights, freedoms and achievements– for some. Although these advances are still partial and fragile, women continue to fight for implementation of their legally guaranteed rights in government-controlled areas of the country. Protecting women’s rights must be one of the key objectives of the peace process, and Afghan women should be involved in any Afghan peace agreements. Their rights and freedom must never be a bargaining chip in the country’s peace negotiations.