The South Asia Channel
Afghanistan is Failing to Help Abused Women
Abuse against women in Afghan homes is horrifyingly pervasive; around 87 percent of Afghan women are believed to have experienced domestic abuse at least once. What is Afghanistan doing to end the abuse?
Fatemeh, a quiet, pretty 23-year-old Afghan woman, quickly becomes overwhelmed when she describes the beatings her first husband dealt her. Just one month after their wedding five years ago, Fatemeh said he was beating her so viciously that one blow rendered her almost completely deaf in one ear. The violence was almost always sparked over small matters. “It became so that whenever I asked him for something I needed, he would refuse and beat me,” she said. I asked her for an example. “Groceries, food,” Fatemeh replied.
Abuse against women in Afghan homes is horrifyingly pervasive. Around 87 percent of Afghan women are believed to have experienced domestic abuse at least once. Many women, who are often economically and socially dependent on the violent family members, never report the abuse. But the few Afghan women that do seek help tend to shun Afghanistan’s formal court system in favor of more traditional ways of resolving disputes. This was the case of Fatemeh’s family who went to a local council, or shura.
“I am from a poor family, my parents are uneducated. We had no idea how the courts worked,” Fatemeh said. Pragmatic concerns were also a factor: Fatemeh’s village of Roy Abrashim is two hours by car to the nearest courts located in Herat city, and completely reliant on her abusive husband for money, she could not afford the taxi fares to travel there.
According to a recent report by United Nation’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Afghan women are not engaging with the country’s formal justice system, believing it to be corrupt and unprofessional. Crucially, they also often do not understand how to even begin navigating the frustrating bureaucracy for which Afghanistan’s governmental courts are notorious.
Strengthening the formal justice system has been a pillar of international development work in Afghanistan since 2002. Yet, while women’s rights advocates generally agree that violence against women, particularly major crimes, should be addressed through a formal criminal justice system, donors have failed to address the difficulties many Afghan women face in actually accessing legal institutions.
According to Mary Akrami, executive director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center — an NGO that runs women’s shelters in Afghanistan — women need more than education of their rights. “We cannot forget that women need assistance to get access to justice in Afghanistan,” she said. “If a woman has an understanding of her rights but cannot access them, she will run away from her home.”
In UNAMA’s report, only five percent of finalized cases of violence against women were adjudicated through criminal prosecution. Sixty five percent reached an outcome through non-judicial processes, including via shuras, religious authorities or families, or mediated by institutions mandated by Afghanistan’s Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, such as the Department of Women’s Affairs.
While traditional dispute resolution, and other non-judicial means, can deliver Afghan women a faster outcome to their cases, UNAMA also found that it often fails to meet many human rights standards and mediation principles. Hearings are held without the victim present. Many mediators, lacking formal training, are often not impartial, and an absence of regulation or rules means that outcomes for women are inconsistent.
Worryingly, in the majority of cases outside the courts, the survivor and the perpetrator reconciled and the victim was reintegrated back into the family. In other words, Afghanistan’s informal justice system is asking women to “forget the past” in an effort to preserve families and maintain social cohesion, rather than seeking to punish the abuser.
Despite Fatemeh’s shura being fully aware her husband was beating her, “they would always tell me to go back to him,” she said. “Because of our Afghan culture, it’s a disgrace for a married woman not to be in her husband’s home. Everyone in the community knew he was beating me.”
Parvaneh, another young woman from Injeer, in western Afghanistan, had a similar experience when she approached her local shura about the domestic abuse she was suffering. At 13 years old, Parveneh married her cousin, 10 years her senior. Within a year, her husband, an opium addict who spent his days with other addicts at the local graveyard, was beating her regularly, leaving pronounced scars on her scalp and arms. Her local shura listened sympathetically, she said, but they too pushed her to reconcile with her husband. “They would make me feel bad,” she said. “They would convince me to go back to him.”
In both Parvaneh and Fatemeh’s cases, the shuras were eventually able to extract promises by their husbands to stop the abuse. But with no meaningful follow-up or enforcement mechanism in place, both ultimately sought the assistance of NGOs who guided them through the bureaucratic court processes. They were lucky to get that assistance; demand for legal aid in Afghanistan far outstrips available resources.
Both Parvaneh and Fatemeh sought divorce rather than pursue punishment of their husbands through the EVAW law. Critics of EVAW note while the law imposes criminal penalties for violence, it fails to provide additional civil remedies needed to protect Afghan women, like restraining orders, financial maintenance, or custody of children. With Afghan women often completely economically dependent on their families, in the absence of civil remedies, there is a reluctance to see their abuser punished, as it can cut off their sole financial lifeline.
Akrami said that a lack of cooperation and coordination by those in the justice system had resulted in the unfortunate creation of “two parallel systems.” The government cannot ignore traditional justice systems, she said; with so many women preferring them, further investment is required, and rules and regulations are needed to bring the traditional justice system under a framework to avoid misjudgments and discrimination. Most importantly, said Akrami, “women must be included as key stakeholders in this process, or it will fail.”
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images