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Street harassment of women in Afghanistan: Need to recognise and address issue

Street harassment is one of the numerous forms of violence which women suffer in Afghanistan. It is the most neglected form of violence against women, writes Zarifa Sabet for South Asia Monitor

Aug 7, 2017
By Zarifa Sabet 
 
Harassment on the streets is a form of violence which women encounter in their day to day lives, but little attention is paid to stop it and rare voices are raised to respond to this issue. I personally encounter it several times a day when I leave home. I have had terrible experiences of street harassment and the experiences have made me write about this issue to address the negative consequences of street harassment and its consequence on women in Afghanistan.
 
Sisonke Msimang, a South African columnist, said, “Street harassment is often a sign of deep-seated resentment of women’s changing status in society. For men who were raised to believe that they are entitled to be breadwinners and receive sexual gratification and domestic subservience from women, the shift hasn’t been easy.”
 
So it is a kind of structural discrimination against women and a sign of patriarchy and male domination in all spheres of the life. Street harassment is difficult to identify and punish because of lack of research on how it affects women. We know that it makes women uncomfortable, helpless, unsafe and traumatized. There is the possibility that a response may escalate the situation, which is why victims keep quiet.
 
However, street harassment in Afghanistan is not recognized as a serious issue and there is no a system to support the victims. Officials like the National Police often engage in these kinds of harassment. Afghan men of varied age and from different religious, social and economic backgrounds engage in abusive practices in public. These practices are most common in Kabul but are spreading to other major cities.
 
According to Global Right, 87 percent of women in Afghanistan experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetime and 62 percent experiences multiple forms of violence. The traditional justice system is most often against womens rights and women who escape violence and seek help often face indifference or criminal sanction for committing a moral crime.
 
Street harassment is one of the numerous forms of violence which women suffer in Afghanistan. It is the most neglected form of violence against women. Street harassment is defined as the “Hostile action or physical contact with women; publication of posters, pictures, audio and video clips that are against ethics; verbal or non-verbal abuse or illegitimate demands; intimidating or abusing a woman by threatening a demotion, transfer, termination, withholding of promotion, or withholding of a positive evaluation.”  
 
 There is little attention from domestic justice institutions, women’s rights advocates and civil society. In this form of violence women most often prefer to be silent and don’t report the incidence to institutions of justice because victims are blamed instead of perpetrators. In most cases women are doubly victimized; if they report the matter to the police, they are blamed and often, they are being harassed by the police and other officials. People have little faith in the police and other justice institutions because of a lack of transparency in the judicial system. Street harassment becomes a routine form of violence against women.
 
Every woman has a tragic story of street harassment which often they do not like to share. If the family comes to know, there is the possibility of putting more restrictions against women going out for school, university, work or other related activities.
 
It is a wrong perception that the way women dress is the cause of street harassment. That is not the case. Wearing jeans with top or wearing a burqa or hejab, women have to be ready to hear awkward comments from males. Even small children are involved. Passing through a street where beggar women were sitting with their children. I saw how their children were passing comments on girls who were passing through that street.
 
There are many forms of street harassment - verbal, physical, stalking or even kidnapping attempts.           
 
Women and Children’s Legal Research Foundation conducted research on October 2015 with 364 women and girls about sexual harassment in public spaces, workplaces, and educational institutions in seven provinces of Afghanistan. 93% said they were harassed in public spaces, 87% said workplaces, and 89% said educational institutions.
 
Additionally, 90% had observed sexual harassment in public places, 79% in educational settings, and 72% in workplaces. However it is a form of violence which is less spoken about and there less willingness among women to share such experiences.  There are provinces where women are not able to appear in public spaces because of traditional and cultural barriers. They are completely marginalized so they cannot play the roles they must.
 
There are some institutional mechanisms to remove gender-based violence but implementation has mostly failed: In Afghanistan National Action Plan or EVAW’s article 3(7),  harassment is defined as: “using words or committing acts by any means, which causes damage to the personality, body and psyche of a woman.” According to article 30, “a person convicted of this offence can be sentenced from three to twelve months in prison. In cases where the person who committed the harassment misused his authority, the sentence cannot be less than six months."
 
In spite of having a number of laws the problems are intensified because street harassment is not considered a serious issue. Post 2001, a huge amount of money has gone to defence and military issues, but there is less focus on human security and women security.
 
Street harassment has intensified due to lack of legal mechanisms and a clear definition of what constitutes street harassment. The main roots are the traditional beliefs among Afghans that women are associated with private spheres and men are associated with the public spaces, leading to a structural gender-biased and gender-based discrimination in Afghan Society. As per AHRD, strict social segregation in schools, little communication between the two genders, and ambiguity and poor rule of law have allowed this social problem to fester.
 
 (Zarifa Sabet is a graduate student in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at zarifa.farhat@gmail.com)

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