Afghanistan has made some progress in using the law to protect women against violence but many still suffer horrific abuse at the hands of men, a UN report said on Tuesday.
The assessment, which comes a day after a senior women’s rights official was shot dead, opens with the tragic death of a 15-year-old girl who set herself on fire this year after repeated beatings by her new husband and his father.
When she reported her case to prosecutors she was told to withdraw the complaint or face being jailed.
In a reflection of the desperate situation of many women in the patriarchal and war-ravaged Islamic country, the report described a sharp increase in the number of reported cases of violence against women as “an encouraging development”.
That is because attacks still remain largely under-reported due to cultural restraints and religious beliefs, and at times because women fear for their lives, the UN’s mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said.
The report comes 11 years after a US-led invasion ousted the notoriously brutal Taliban regime, which barred women from going to school or to work.
Billions of dollars in aid have poured into Afghanistan since then and Western countries like to point to advances for women as an indicator of success in a long and costly war which is increasingly unpopular at home.
Girls now have the right to an education and women sit in the Afghan parliament. But the report shows that the belief still runs deep that women are “secondary” to men – as the country’s top religious council said this year.
The US and Nato will withdraw the bulk of their 100,000 troops by the end of 2014, and there are widespread fears that the gains made by women will be eroded after their departure.
Western nations have pledged to continue pumping aid into the country after 2014, but have warned that it will be conditional on respect for democracy and human rights, along with a crackdown on widespread corruption.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 4,010 cases of violence against women in the seven months between March and October this year, nearly twice as many as in the previous 12 months, the report said.
In 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, where the UN was able to gather detailed information, just 21 per cent of 470 reports of violence against women resulted in convictions.
The report listed beating and cutting as the most prevalent crimes recorded under a new law on violence against women adopted in 2009.
But an increase in so-called honour killings, the murder of women for perceived sexual disobedience, was also noted.
“The practice of wrongful prosecution of women and girls for running away from home, often to escape violence, continued,” the report added.
This is not a crime in Afghan or Islamic law but girls and women are often arrested pre-emptively for the “moral crime” of intending to have sex outside of marriage.
The report says that rather than following legal procedures, prosecutors refer many cases to groups of local elders.
This sometimes results in cases where a court may have sentenced a rapist to imprisonment while at the same time the elders decide that the victim should marry the rapist, it says.
The report also notes a reluctance on the part of police to arrest suspects connected to armed groups, whether affiliated with Taliban insurgents or the government.
It recommends that the highest levels of government, including President Hamid Karzai, “continue to publicly emphasise that promotion and protection of women’s rights is an integral part and main priority of peace and reconciliation throughout Afghanistan”.
And international donors should channel aid towards commitments on gender equality made by Afghanistan at a conference in Tokyo in July this year and monitor progress, the report says.