KABUL, Afghanistan — Despite years of intensive effort by Afghan and international rights advocates, progress in obtaining justice for abused women in Afghanistan appears to have stalled, according to a new United Nations report.
The report on the implementation of the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law found that although the number of official reports this year by the police and prosecutors on violence against women rose by 28 percent from the previous year, prosecutions did not keep pace, rising by just 2 percent.
At the same time, there are intensifying fears that the continuing withdrawal of international money and staff members ahead of the 2014 Western troop pullout deadline will leave women particularly vulnerable, after a decade of international attention failed to make much of a dent in an array of deeply entrenched and abusive Afghan traditions.
“With the drawdown in international assistance and support, there is a real risk that any advances in women’s rights will erode, and there’s already disturbing signs of that,” said Georgette Gagnon, the head of the United Nations’ Human Rights division in Kabul, who led the team that put together the report.
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As an example, Gagnon said, the lack of ability to bring abusers to justice was likely to increase “the risk of more child marriages, more forced marriages and violence against women with impunity.”
The backsliding has begun. In the past year, there have been repeated efforts in Parliament to reduce women’s rights.
One new restriction in particular is likely to hurt: Parliament prohibited the use of relatives’ testimony in criminal cases, greatly limiting the ability to prosecute domestic-violence cases, as they often hinge on relatives as witnesses.
There was also an effort to codify the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which was approved as a decree by President Hamid Karzai in 2009 but has not been passed by Parliament. The effort last summer almost resulted in the law unraveling altogether as conservative Parliament members seized the opportunity to declare many of its provisions “un-Islamic,” including the prohibition on child marriages, forced marriages and unrestricted rights to education and women’s shelters. The Parliament speaker stopped the debate and sent it back to committee.
Parliament was successful, however, in reducing the quota of seats for female parliamentarians to 20 percent, down from 25, and eliminated any quota at the district level. The quotas for women used to pertain to all levels of government.
Hasima Safi, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, said her organization had just finished a study of child and forced marriages and concluded it was directly linked to violence against women. Safi, other women’s advocates and Gagnon fear an increase in such marriages as the economy worsens and families turn more frequently to selling their daughters to settle debts and grievances.
In the narrower context of the law and the prosecution of abuse, the U.N. report found that in the past year, most cases were settled by mediation, often carried out by the police, which human-rights advocates said meant women were sent back into the family circumstances in which they were abused.
Based on continuing examination of cases in 16 provinces (the United Nations said Afghanistan’s other 18 provinces did not provide enough information), few prosecutors were even using the Elimination of Violence Against Women law as a basis for indictments. The law was reported to have been used in 17 percent of cases, 109 of 650 registered episodes in those provinces.
Worse, despite the increase in reports under the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, the overall number of abuse reports under all the applicable criminal laws decreased this year. Some prosecutors prefer to use criminal laws rather than the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in cases of abuse, and the U.N. report attempted to look at all cases that involved violence against women in evaluating the justice system’s approach to abused women.
The law criminalizes an array of crimes, including violence against women, and harmful practices: including beatings, child marriages, forced marriages, the practice of giving away a woman or girl to settle a dispute and forced self-immolation. The most prevalent form of violence is battery and laceration, the report said.