Afghanistan: No place for women

The February 29, 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban could pave the way for a peace that Afghans urgently pursue. But, then again there are huge risks for women’s rights in this process, as the Taliban remain deeply misogynistic, writes Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya for South Asia Monitor

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On June 27, Fatima Khalil, a human right activist who worked with Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) was killed in an explosion along with her driver in Butkhak square of Kabul city. Following her death, Shaharzad Akbar, the chairwoman of the AIHRC said, “As an Afghan woman, from a patriarchal society, being Fatima took guts -  so hard. Just knowing your mind - as a woman you are told every day you don’t have a mind; you don’t have an opinion. She had an opinion on everything.”

Few of such recent incidents involving violence against women in Afghanistan is as follows:

On May 1, 2020, Nazela, an 18-year-old woman, was strangled with an electric wire and then stabbed to death by her brother in an incident of ‘honour killing’ in Baharak District of Badakhshan Province. 

On August 28, 2019, suspected Taliban militants shot and killed two Afghan female police officers in Chawk-e-Madad neighbourhood of Kandahar, the capital city of Kandahar Province. 

Earlier, on May 11, 2019, Mena Mangal, a former journalist and a cultural advisor to the Wolesi Jirga, the Lower House of Parliament was killed in the Kart-e-Naw area of Kabul. Mangal had worked as a news presenter for three local TV networks in Kabul, including LEMAR TV, Shamshad News, and Ariana TV.

Just three days before Mengal’s killing, on May 8, Taliban launched an attack on the head office of US-funded aid group, Counterpart International, in the Shahr-e-Naw area of Kabul city, citing the “intermixing” of women and men working at the site and its promotion of “western activities”. At least nine people were killed (including five members of the Afghan security forces) and 20 were wounded in a siege that lasted more than seven hours. An Afghan woman, who has worked at Counterpart for more than three years, speaking on condition of anonymity, was quoted as saying, “The Taliban want to kill women who work with men. If I die, there will be no one to feed my parents and siblings.”

In 2019, the AIHRC recorded nearly 4,700 cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, an 8 percent increase compared to the previous year. The AIHRC recorded the murders of 238 Afghan women in 2019, with 96 labeled as honor killings. This was a slight decrease compared to 2018. Often the murders are not reported and perpetrators go unpunished.

Patriarchal society

The killing of women, as a result of a militant attack or honour killing, has become an accepted ‘way of life’ in the war-ravaged country. Most Afghan men in this traditionally orthodox country still hold the view that women are lower to them and have no right to freedom.  

The factors resulting in the violence include failure to deal decisively with perpetrators; a culture of impunity; perceptions that violence against women is ‘normal’; illiteracy, ignorance and lower level of public consciousness; traditional patterns of marriage; corruption and abuse of state positions; women’s limited access to justice; the lack of security; and the weakness of state authority in the districts and provinces.

Four decades of warfare and desolation has completely destroyed the social fabric of Afghanistan. The deep-rooted social conditioning of women has forced them to stay away from the political, social, and economic mainstream of the country for a significant period of time. Even after the ouster of the Taliban, most women still live in fear and suffer under a shroud of hush, as violence is meted out by conservative groups and family members, alike.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) stated, in its 2020 Afghanistan Humanitarian Needs Overview, that gender-based violence against women was pervasive. The report added, “Women across Afghanistan continue to be subject to high rates of violence related to their gender, although this remains difficult to quantify due to suspected underreporting and overall lack of data.”

Also, according to the latest United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report, titled, Injustice and Impunity: Mediation of Criminal Offences of Violence against Women,” published in May 2018, 237 cases of violence against women were reported in 22 Afghan provinces monitored by UNAMA between August 2015 and December 2017, and another 280 cases of murder and honour killings were also documented by the UN mission. This is the sixth UNAMA report on violence against women since 2009, when the UN mission in Afghanistan began monitoring the implementation of the law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW).

Violence a grim reality 

Despite the legal protections outlined above, gender-based violence against women is a grim and endemic reality in the patriarchal and conservative Afghan society. Afghanistan is ranked as “the worst place in the world to be a woman,” according to May 2019, Amnesty International’s report, The World’s Worst Places to Be a Woman. Women in contemporary Afghanistan face a host of daily threats in the form of insurgency, beating, honour killing, rape, stoning to death, giving away of girls in marriage to resolve disputes, enforced prostitution, burning or using chemical substances to deface, suicide and forced immolation, mostly in the name of religion and tribal customs. Harmful yet prevalent traditional practices, such as the “bride price” and “baad,” a method of settlement in which women are treated as exchangeable assets, increase the prevalence of forced and child marriages. Furthermore, other systemic challenges include lack of access to the formal justice system, poor enactment of the law, overreliance on informal dispute resolution mechanisms, and political conflict.

Interestingly, Shahrzad Akbar, Chairperson of the AIHRC, stated in December 2019: “Regardless of whether they live in Taliban - or government-controlled areas, …...Afghan women are much more likely to be injured or killed by their own family members than by the war.’ Akbar continued, ‘The status of women in their homes, the lack of safety from violence and abuse in their own families, is absolutely unacceptable, but it is the reality. We see more reporting – we don’t see more justice…”

The situation of women in Afghanistan, where according to November 14, 2019, report, about 80 percent of Afghan women are out of the workforce and 91 percent have only a primary education or less, the chances of women finding work elsewhere are slim. Those who do attempt to leave often risk everything. The February 29, 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban could pave the way for a peace that Afghans urgently pursue. But, then again there are huge risks for women’s rights in this process, as the Taliban remain deeply misogynistic, and such perversions are deeply percolated within the clan-based and the family unit in Afghanistan. The Taliban 1996 to 2001 regime was notorious for causing havoc to Afghan women and girls and subjecting them to violence including public lashing or execution by stoning. Taliban rhetoric and conduct has ‘moderated’ somewhat in subsequent years. But the Taliban denial of gender equality continues to remain deeply entrenched in society.

(The writer is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at sanchita.bhat83@gmail.com)

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