Speaking Out for Justice: An Initial Victory for Women Victims of ViolenceRecently Afghan TV channels and news agencies have reported on an increasing number of cases of violence against women around the country. Only in the two first weeks of December at least four cases of murder were discussed in the media. In reaction to the violent incidents, civil society organizations and women’s rights activists started an advocacy campaign calling for a better implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW law) by the country’s authorities. Media support through news reporting, short dramas and public service announcements also play an important role in public awareness on the law. The positive steps that include successful prosecutions using the EVAW law are, however, muddled by a reality where many women continue to face extreme violence with little protection from their families or communities and little action from the government. AAN’s Wazhma Samandary takes a look at some of the recent cases and the ongoing discussion about violence against women.
[Speaker standing in front of the banner with signatures supporting the implementation of the EVAW law.]
Over the last few years, with all the talk of talks with the Taleban, concerns regarding possible compromises on women’s rights have been increasing. These concerns have led the media, civil society and human rights activists to focus more on the coverage of women’s rights issues. The recent reports by the media and civil society on cases of violence against women show that Afghan women are still victims of violence domestically and publically due to cultural impunity, unawareness of the laws, poverty, weakness and corruption in the judicial system, wrong traditional fanaticism and the presence of unauthorized armed people in different parts of the country.
According to Suraya Sobhrang, Commissioner for Women’s Rights Support and Development in the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), in an interview with Radio Azadi, the AIHRC has recorded 4,000 cases of violence against women during the first seven months of the current Afghan year, showing an almost two-fold increase in the reported violence against women compared to the reported period in the previous year.
A recent report by UNAMA on the implementation of the EVAW law also shows a sharp increase in the number of reported incidents of violence against women. More specifically, the report’s statistics indicate that the number of reported cases went from 2,299 in the whole of 2011 to 4,010 incidents March to October 2012 alone. According to this report the number of cases registered by the prosecution offices in 22 out of 34 provinces reached 1,538 incidents, comparing to 529 incidents in the same 22 provinces in 2011 (information from other provinces was unavailable or incomplete due to limited access, limited availability or lack of cooperation by local law enforcement authorities, and challenges in the collection of reliable information).
The increase in reported cases could signify an actual increase in violence against women countrywide, but it could also relate to an increase in the activity by the media and civil society to make cases public and to raise public awareness, reflecting – among other things - concerns that peace talks with the Taliban may jeopardize the gains in women’s rights that were achieved over the last decade.
The increase in reported cases may also be a sign that Afghan society is gradually changing; with individual women, and in some cases their families, now speaking out and seeking redress, at least in the very extreme cases of abuse and violence. The courage of individual women and women’s organisations has also resulted in reactions by politicians and society at large – many have been constructive, some less so (see for instance AAN’ earlier blogs on the women’s shelter controversies here and here).
Some of the most recent cases of gross violence against women that were reported in December 2012 include the case of 15-year old Bibi Gysyna who was murdered on 29 November 2012 in Gumgol village (Imam Sahib, Kunduz) by her cousin Sadeq and another male relative who brutally slit her throat after her family refused a marriage proposal due to her young age; the case of Anisa, a volunteer polio vaccinator who was killed by armed people in Kapisa on 2 December 2012; the case of Gul Bibi, a 15 year-old married and pregnant girl, who was found dead on 8 December 2012 on a hill called Chahar Shanba Tapa in central Baghlan (officials say the cause of death was probably suicide, the doctors who did the post-mortem say the cause of death is not clear and her family has accused the husband of murder); and the case of Nasrin, a 16 year-old girl, who was found shot dead in her home in Kunduz – again the police claimed that it was suicide, but this has not been confirmed.
These cases came right after some optimism was created among the people and women rights advocates as a result of a series of successful prosecutions that received much attention and created hope for the implementation of the EVAW law. These cases included: the case of Lal Bibi, an 18 year old girl from Kunduz, who was forcedly taken in revenge by an ALP commander on 17 May 2012 and subsequently raped and tortured; the case of Zhara from Herat, who was allegedly raped by her father, which was dealt with in court in November 2012; and that of Sahar Gul, a 15-year old girl from Baghlan, who was forcedly given in baad – a dispute resolution practice that involves forced marriage – and tortured by her husband and in-laws over a period of several months; the case was discovered by the police on 27 December 2011.
The murder cases have increased concerns over the severity of domestic violence due to the lack of law enforcement and the existence of illegally and unauthorised armed people in different parts of the country. This has led to criticism against the government for the ensuing insecurity and its inability to control armed people, including outrage over crimes committed by the ALP against women, as was the case in the rape of Lal Bibi in Kunduz. According to a critical local media report:
“The ALP is supposed to cover this gap. But the forces of ALP have been involved in abuses over the years even before this incident. Bibi's case is just the latest in a long line of incidents where more than 10 local policemen have been arrested and charged since 2010 on various accounts of abuse, ever since the launch of the [ALP] initiative.”
Mari Akrami, the director of the shelter where Lal Bibi is currently being protected, told AAN in October 2012: ‘Lal Bibi was in a very bad condition, there were signs of chains on her wrists, and she was badly mentally affected and depressed. What really has given us a good morale is that her family raised their voice in support of their daughter, even though usually in our culture raising this kind of matters is considered a big shame and dishonour to the family.’ The stance of the family is what drew the attention of the media and may well be one reason for the strong support from human rights and civil society activists. As remarked in a report by CNN: "In Afghanistan, where honour crimes are common, killing a rape victim isn't rare. But speaking out is."
On 7 October 2012, the accused ALP commanders in the Lal Bibi case appeared in a public primary court and were sentenced – based on article 17 of the EVAW law and articles 409, 285, 156 and 39 of the penal code of Afghanistan – to 16 years in prison for rape, misuse of authority and the beating of Lal Bibi’s father.
Another successful prosecution was the case of Sahar Gul, the 15-year old girl who was found in a cellar in Baghlan province. Sahar Gul's husband and her in-laws kept her in a cell for five months and tortured her badly, because she refused to work as a prostitute. Her husband, mother in-law and sister in-law were sentenced to 10 years in prison based on article 17 of the EVAW law, making this another successful example of the implementation of the EVAW law.
Both cases involved girls given as baad – a widespread practice that involves the giving of a woman, or more a often girl, to solve a dispute. The practice is banned under both the Penal Code (article 517) and the EVAW law (article 25) but is still used as a traditional dispute-resolution mechanism to deal with cases locally, rather than referring them to the police or Attorney General’s Office for prosecution. In this way many cases, even very serious criminal cases such as rape or murder, are referred to jirgas and shuras for resolution and as a result women become victims of violence. Lal Bibi was the victim of an ALP commander’s decision to have her forcedly taken as baad in response to an earlier rape that involved a daughter of the ALP commander and the cousin of Lal Bibi. Shahar gul was given as baad by her stepbrother at a very young age and without her agreement.
Finally, there is the case of Zahra, reported by TOLO news on 11 November 2012, in Herat who was allegedly raped by her father; he threatened her with death if she told her mother. Zahara asked for the most severe punishment for her father in the Appeal Court of Herat. The man was sentenced to death by the judge of Herat’s provincial appeals court, Abdul Ghafar Zubair, but the accused father rejected the accusation and appealed to the High Court. The final decision remains for the High Court to decide.
For more cases that resulted in convictions using EVAW law see the recent UNAMA report A Long Way to Go: Implementation of the Elimination of Violence against Women law in Afghanistan.
The persecution of the perpetrators in the mentioned cases can be considered an achievement for the implementation of the EVAW law, the improvement of women’s conditions and the ensuring of justice in Afghanistan. The EVAW law played a significant role in providing justice in the mentioned cases. At the same time, the cases show that violence against women remains a big concern in Afghanistan.
One of the reasons why women have always been subjected to violence and injustice was the lack of a comprehensive law (before EVAW), besides the many other factors relating to customs and conflict. The Penal Code does contain some mention of crimes against women in articles 424-429, but this is not comprehensive enough to cover all possible forms of crimes against women. Endorsed on 1 August 2009 by the President as a legislative decree, the EVAW law specifically mentions rape (the Penal Code of Afghanistan only mentions adultery which is of course different from rape), forced marriage, child marriage, baad marriage, forced self-immolation and 17 other acts of violence against women. It defines rape and beating as crimes and establishes specific punishments for the perpetrators.
However, the implementation of the law faces many challenges and obstacles, and violence against women is still frequent in all parts of the country. Notwithstanding the increase in the reporting of instances of violence against women, there are lots of other cases that remain unreported and underreported due to religious beliefs, traditional and social constraints, and irresponsibility and carelessness of the local authorities. Awareness about and acceptance of the law has not yet been established among the people, often not even among those in positions of authority working in the government’s highest offices and in the judiciary sector.
The recent verbal attacks on the EVAW law have increased the tension. On 13 November 2012 Deputy Minister Abid told women’s right activists from civil society and parliament members that some of the articles in the EVAW law are against Islam and that therefore the Mullahs will not discuss it in the mosques. There was also a reaction by some MPs in Parliament claiming that the law includes un-Islamic issues. One of the issues was that, according to the law, escaping from one’s house must not be considered a crime under some circumstances. Women facing very harsh conditions or violence at the hands of husbands and in-laws often have only two choices left: to commit suicide or to escape from their houses. Many women burn themselves because they do not have any other option, so in such cases escaping from the house must not be considered a crime.
Some women right activists challenged the Deputy Minister’s opinion. They claimed that, to the contrary, the EVAW law is based on Sharia, and accused the Mullahs of lacking knowledge about Islamic Sharia precepts. Ruqia Naiel, a provincial council member from Ghor province, told AAN in November 2012: “There are a number of MPs in parliament who are not supporting the EVAW law, they always have a negative attitude towards women rights and freedom. Personally I do not see any contradiction between the EVAW and Sharia.”
Wazhma Frogh a women’s rights activists told AAN: “Some of our judges and the Mullahs do not have enough knowledge of Sharia law and what is written in the Quran and the hadiths, so they think that most of the material for the EVAW law has been taken from foreign laws, while all of its issues have been taken from other Islamic countries’ laws such as the family laws of Iran, Turkey and Malaysia. Moreover, another problem is that prosecutors do not know about all its articles yet. We are planning to create commissions to raise awareness about the EVAW in all 34 provinces, but we could do so only in 17 until now.”
Recently civil society launched a ten day awareness and advocacy campaign, calling for better Implementation of the EVAW law. Zahrah Sepair, director of the Development and Support for Afghan Women and Children Organisation (DSAWCO) and one of the organisers of the campaign explained that they intended to collect a large number of signatures from ordinary citizens, students, university teachers, governmental officials. The collected signatures were presented during a conference in the Intercontinental Hotel on 2 January 2013. The 3000 signatures so far, included those of President Karzai, Second Vice President Mr. Karim Khalili, opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, most of the ministries and many other governmental authorities. The banners with the signatures will be submitted to the President’s Office, members of parliament, the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court of Afghanistan to underline the need for more consideration towards the implementation of the EVAW law in the country.
Although existing problems persist - including intolerance towards the law by religious leaders, public unawareness about the law, corruption within the justice systems of the country, and government weakness in controlling security - the endless effort by the women’s rights advocates, civil society and media point towards important signs of change. The increase in reported cases of violence and media coverage are indicators of a greater awareness and the cases of Lal Bibi, Zhara and Sahar Gul illustrate that the EVAW law can be applied successfully. But the fact that these cases needed to be “pushed through” by the continuing efforts of the civil society and human rights activists, as well as the presence of countless other unprosecuted cases, show that any real change will be slow to come. In the meantime, extensive and regular media reporting about cases of violence against women can prove helpful in raising awareness and making sure that the application of EVAW law becomes standard practice throughout the country. Time is needed until people in all parts of Afghanistan get trained about the new law and for that purpose the government, civil society organizations, human rights activists and media will need to play an important role.