Women’s Rights Abuses in Afghanistan: Searching for the Full Story

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Analysis Violence

Women’s Rights Abuses in Afghanistan: Searching for the Full Story

Jessica Mack

Global coverage of women's rights abuses in Afghanistan is critical to raising awareness and changing this reality. But what is being done on the ground and at the policy level? What is the good news? The picture is often larger, and more complex, than we see. 

It was just a few weeks ago that the international news cycle was consumed with the gruesome tale of a young Afghan girl who had endured months of torture at the hands of her in-laws. Now there’s another equally devastating story showcasing women’s rights abuses in Afghanistan. In the northern Kunduz province, a man and his mother are accused of strangling his wife, allegedly for giving birth to a girl.

“I have known women to endure emotional, economic, and physical abuse at the hands of their husbands for giving birth to girls. It’s heartbreaking,” said Naheed Bahram, Program Manager at Women for Afghan Women, a US- and Afghanistan-based women’s rights group.

The tragedy is a dual injustice, demonstrating both how early on a disregard for women’s rights in Afghanistan begins and how senselessly and brutally it is manifest.  Violence against women in Afghanistan has become a well-established fact. A 2008 survey found that 87.2 percent of women had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual, or psychological violence or forced marriage in their lifetime.  

Think what you will about the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Naheed Bahram sees a correlation between the U.S. presence and expanded awareness of – and progress on – women’s rights abuses. “We would not have achieved what we have without foreign presence.” In part, that’s because US presence has enabled new platforms for drawing awareness to the rights abuses women endure countrywide. We hear about acid-throwing and torture, child marriage and self-immolation, and maternal mortality, which in Afghanistan is the highest in the world.

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From the media, we get a bleak and disturbing picture. Last year, Afghanistan was ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman by a Reuters poll – worse even than the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is estimated that a woman is victimized nearly every minute. All of this, as depressing as it is, is important to know. For every one woman’s tale we read, hundreds are likely to have endured what she did, or maybe worse. Yet the picture is wider than this.

“It’s very important for the world to know what’s going on with women in Afghanistan, but it’s not a complete without also talking about what local women’s organizations are doing to change things,” says Bahram. “The media shows only negative things about Afghanistan. We hear about teachers who have acid thrown on them, but not about the girls winning scholarships for higher education.”

Women for Afghan Women runs women’s shelters  and halfway houses across Afghanistan and a community center in Queens, New York for Afghan women immigrants, among other programs. They are also providing a defense lawyer for Sahar Gul, the young girl whose brutalized image was splashed across media outlets just weeks ago. They have received a fair amount of media attention for their excellent work, but it is rarely in context of report on abuses.

Paying attention the hard-earned victories of women’s rights groups inside and out of Afghanistan is as crucial in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan as is bringing to light the many abuses women face. It helps preserve the dignity of women in Afghanistan as fighters, organizers, and advocates, even while many may be victims and survivors as well. It is also these groups who are largely responsible for carrying the voices of abuse survivors to the press and beyond.

And while they’re working to provide safety nets, and communicate their tales of abuse to the world, what they’re asking for policy-wise is surprisingly little. “If people followed the laws that we have properly, there wouldn’t be as much violence as we’re having right now. The government is corrupt and the authorities just aren’t responsible,” says Bahram.

In 2009, advocates were successful in passing the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, which “strengthens sanctions against various forms of violence against women; including making rape a crime for the first time under Afghan law.” In 2010, Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the impunity of this law, asking that the US “provide long-term support to the government to embark on a training program for prosecutors, police, and judges to ensure that the Elimination of Violence Against Women law is implemented.”

Despite ongoing impunity of violence against women, Afghan women’s voices and experiences are increasingly being heard around the world. It’s important that these voices are continuously put in context of what is being done and what needs to be done so that things change. That chorus of voices should include both victims and victors. A recent report on women’s boxing in Afghanistan, likely to go largely unnoticed, depicts two sisters, gold and silver medalist world boxing champions, gearing up for the London Olympics.

“I’m very proud of the work that we’re doing in Afghanistan and there has been a change, though it may be very small,” says Bahram. “Afghanistan has had 30 years of war, so it will take at least another 30 years to be back in the place where we once were. The world needs to be patient with Afghanistan.”