JUSTICE IS STILL DENIED TO AFGHAN WOMEN
New York Dr. Cesar Chelala
In Afghanistan, there were expectations that ten years after the fall of the Taliban women’s rights –which had been systematically abused during the Taliban’s rule- would be respected. Several incidents involving women and girls show that this is not the case. Many of those incidents have been included in a Human Rights Watch 2012 report “I Had to Run Away: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls for ‘Moral Crimes’ in Afghanistan.”
The HRW report is based on 58 interviews with women and girls accused of “moral crimes,” and were conducted in three prisons and three juvenile detention facilities. These crimes often involved flight from a forced marriage or different degrees and kinds of domestic violence. In addition, some of the women and girls were convicted of zina, as sex out of marriage is called, after being raped or forced into prostitution.
In 2001, the Bonn Agreement established the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) as a national human rights institution in charge of protecting human rights and investigating human rights abuses and war crimes. Its existence was solidified by the Afghanistan Constitution of 2004.
The current Afghan constitution, approved by consensus in 2004 after the 2003 loya jirga, promised equal rights for women and men, allowing women to work outside the home and engage in political activity.
Despite some advances, however, in late March 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed into law an internationally repudiated “Shia Family Law.” This law apparently condones spousal rape, child marriage, and imposes purdah on married Afghan women. Purdah is the social system that determines sexual propriety and manages inter-gender interaction and relationships.
That same year, the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) banned and set serious penalties for underage and forced marriage, domestic violence, rape, forced prostitution and other abuses against women. However, discrimination and violence against women continues, and those that try to flee abusive situations face apathy and criminal sanctions for what are vaguely defined as “moral crimes.” Although reliable statistics are not readily available, HRW estimates that in January 2012, there were approximately 400 women and girls imprisoned in Afghanistan for “moral crimes.”
Although there has been an increased participation of women in Afghanistan’s social, educational and political life, prejudices and ineffectual application of laws continue to exact a heavy toll on women. While women who flee abuse often end up incarcerated, the men responsible for those abuses frequently enjoy impunity from prosecution.
Women and girls are still forced into marriage, often at a very young age and to a much older man. As a result, it is estimated that every two hours an Afghan woman or girl dies of pregnancy-related causes, in part because they are forced to marry immediately after puberty and they give birth when their bodies are not fully developed.
When facing such difficult circumstances, many women leave those unhappy relationships. Their enraged relatives then track them down and accuse them of running away from their marriage or of zina, which is defined by Islamic Law as unlawful sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other.
Even if charges are not proven, women suffer from invasive medical examinations and severe damages to their credibility and reputation. Only rarely do the police and the justice system investigate claims of abuse cited by women as their reason for fleeing home, and even more rarely are men prosecuted for those crimes.
The Supreme Court of Afghanistan has instructed the country’s judges to treat women “running away” as a crime, despite the absence of this offense in Afghan law. Prosecutors often argue that women and girls detained for “moral crimes” are of bad moral character and probably “fabricate” their stories of abuse. Recently, the country’s justice minister has called women’s shelters “dens of prostitution.”
Because religious leaders in Afghanistan have a strong influence on civil society and the justice system, it is important to obtain their collaboration to improve women’s access to justice. In addition, they can be involved in public awareness campaigns stressing women’s protective verses in the Qur’an. These campaigns should involve wide segments fo society including children, police, women and health care professionals.
Afghanistan’s justice system should investigate all crimes against women, determine if women’s actions were in response to abuse and prosecute those presumed guilty. Until Afghanistan’s justice system treats all its citizens equally, the country will continue to be a pariah among those that respect justice and women’s rights.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia)