Prisoners in Their Own Country
In December 2011, Sahar Gul, a 15-year-old Afghan girl and underage bride, was freed by Afghan police after having been severely tortured for six months by her in-laws in an attempt to force her into prostitution. During her captivity, Sahar had been kept locked in a basement, tortured with hot irons, her fingers broken and fingernails ripped out.
While Sahar’s horrific ordeal sparked justifiable outrage among many Afghans, her agony is all too commonplace in Afghanistan, a country in which violence against women and girls is both pervasive and growing.
The violent abuse used against Afghan females also entails the widespread and socially accepted practice of forced child marriage, a cultural and religious reality that has led to over half of the marriages in Afghanistan involving girls under the age of 16.
So, given that, it’s not surprising to find that in the decade after the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghanistan still remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for women. According to the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, Afghanistan ranks as the world’s sixth-worst country for women due to violence — including domestic abuse — sexual harassment, poverty and lack of healthcare.
Moreover, Afghan women and girls — in addition to underage marriage — are also subjected to honor killings and the traditional Afghan practice known as “baad,” whereupon women are given away to pay family debts or settle disputes.
Unfortunately — despite the rise of scores of women’s advocacy groups and the enactment of laws guaranteeing women’s rights — both the Afghan justice system and its patriarchal society remain heavily stacked against Afghan women and girls.
For example, in April 2009 Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the Shiite Personal Status Law, legislation which applied to Afghanistan’s minority Shiite populace. Provisions in that legislation allowed 14-year-old girls to marry as well as men to rape their wives.
After outcries by Afghan women’s groups that the government was legalizing marital rape, Karzai said the law would be amended to bring it in line with the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for women.
To that end, the Afghan government enacted later in 2009 the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law which criminalized acts like early or forced marriage and rape.
Despite its passage, however, a UN report in November 2011 found that the EVAW act was rarely enforced, citing as an example the 2,299 crimes reported in 2010, of which only 155 cases, or just 7 percent, were prosecuted.
According to the UN report, “Judicial officials in many parts of the country have begun to use the law — but its use represents a very small percentage of how the government addresses cases of violence against women.”
Of course, it’s not terribly surprising that given the treatment of women in Afghan society the response by Afghanistan’s police and judiciary is to either ignore crimes launched against women or, in most cases, send the women back to their abusers.
Nowhere has that latter point been better demonstrated than in the recent case of Gulnaz, a 19-year-old Afghan girl who was raped by her cousin’s husband and imprisoned in 2009 for “forced adultery.”
After spending two and a half years in jail, during which time she gave birth to a daughter fathered by her defiler, Gulnaz was offered a pardon in December 2011 by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the condition Gulnaz marry her rapist.
While Karzai’s decision may have engendered outraged disbelief from those in the West its foundation was deeply rooted in Afghan custom and Islamic law. Specifically, Gulnaz’s little girl, having been born in prison, is considered to be illegitimate, a disgrace to her family and, as a consequence, never to be accepted by Afghan society unless her parents marry.
Yet, whether prompted by domestic pressures or by a need to polish Afghanistan’s international image, Karzai graciously released Gulnaz without the precondition she wed her rapist. In a bitter irony for Gulnaz, however, she has now traded the relative safety of the jail cell for a life on the run.
To that end, Gulnaz currently resides in an undisclosed location, hiding from her own family, as reports have surfaced that her brothers have threatened to kill her baby daughter.
Tragically, Gulnaz’s ordeal is currently being shared by nearly 350 Afghan women and girls who are currently locked up in Afghanistan prisons, convicted for crimes of forced adultery or “zina” (extramarital sex). Like Gulnaz, many of these women have the added burden of sharing their jail cells with their children.
Most disturbingly, many of the jailed inmates are themselves children, evidenced by the fact that 114 of them are girls between the ages of 12 and 18, 80 percent of whom are serving sentences for either running away from a forced marriage or having extramarital sex.
As the head of Afghanistan’s juvenile prisons has said of these girls, “Afghan society really hates these crimes. People really hate it when girls run away.”
To prove that point, the Afghanistan Supreme Court in October 2010 ruled that any Afghan woman who fled her home and went anywhere other than to the police or a close relative would be locked up as a precaution against them having illicit sex or engaging in prostitution.
Not surprisingly, many Afghan women are afraid to seek help from Afghan police and judicial authorities for fear they will either face further exploitation at their hands or be forcibly returned to their abusive homes. As such, the women’s prison population in Afghanistan has risen from 380 to more than 700 in the two years since the Supreme Court ruling.
Sadly, jail or forcible return home remain the only unsavory options open to most Afghan women given that fewer than half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces currently have shelters available to runaway women.
Moreover, the Afghan government has made increasing efforts over the past year to take over management of the existing shelters for women, almost all of which are operated by nongovernmental organizations or the United Nations.
In February 2011 the Afghan government ordered Women’s Protection Centers to transfer their control over to Afghanistan’s Women’s Affairs Ministry, claiming that government takeover of the shelters would lead to improved funding and better management.
However, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch said, “The real agenda is clear. The government is increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives who are hostile to the very idea of shelters, since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members.”
While pressure from NGOs and advocacy groups drove the Afghan government in September 2011 to remove many objectionable parts of the shelter regulation — most notably allowing the shelters to remain independent — it still required that a woman could not move out of the shelter unless she is going to the home of a male relative.
Of course, that rule can prove problematic if in many cases those same male relatives may have abused or threatened to kill the woman or girl in the first place. Yet, as one women’s rights advocate says, “That may be more a problem with Afghan society, where it’s nearly impossible for a woman to live alone, without a husband, father, brother or a grown son.”
Unfortunately, the problems women face in Afghanistan don’t seem to be abating anytime soon. In fact, they almost assuredly seem closer to intensifying as both the Afghan government and the United States are currently seeking to negotiate with the Taliban to end its insurgency and reintegrate itself into Afghan society.
As such, many women activists understandably worry that their hard-won political rights, however small they may be, will quickly evaporate once the Taliban rejoin the Afghan fold. As one female Afghan activist lamented, “I’m afraid we won’t have all this anymore if the Taliban are allowed back into society.”
Tragically, given the continued abuse levied against the women and girls of Afghanistan, it’s not a stretch to imagine that they would even notice the difference.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
- Afghan girl’s ‘horrifying abuse’ (indepthafrica.com)