Following a spate of particularly brutal murders, Afghanistan’s minister for women has said attacks on women are becoming more extreme in nature.
This week, two men were arrested in the northern Kunduz province for beheading a 14-year-old girl, apparently because one of them had his marriage proposal turned down. The case came a month after the beheading of a 25-year-old woman in the western Herat province, and the mutilation and murder of a 30-year-old in the same province earlier in October.
Speaking on November 25, at an event to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Afghan women’s affairs minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar said a higher incidence of “extreme or brutal violence” had been recorded in recent months.
At the same time, Ghazanfar said the 3,600 cases of all kinds of violence against women recorded between April and July represented a fall on the same period in 2011.
"We have recorded some very tragic cases this year, though the numbers are lower than last year,” she said. “We are concerned.”
Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, disagrees that the total numbers are down. Commission member Soraya Sobhrang has told the media that her institution recorded 4,000 incidents in April-October, 1,000 more than in the same period last year.
Violence against women often relates to matters of “honour” – perceived offences against a family’s reputation, often arising out of baseless rumour.
Kamela, a young woman from the eastern Nangarhar province, is now trapped in a marriage to a man about five times older than her, after suffering a cycle of violence.
When she was just 14, her father married her off to a 35-year-old man. On their wedding night, the husband discovered she had suffered sexual abuse from a cousin two months before – she had never said anything before because the man had threatened to kill her. Kamala’s husband beat and kicked her until she passed out, and sent her back home on the grounds that she was “immoral”.
Because father felt his honour impugned, he too beat her to a point where the family thought she was dead. Then she was confined in a barn with the livestock for four months until her husband divorced her.
After that, her father accepted 30,000 US dollars from a 78-year-old man who agreed to marry her.
"People are usually aggrieved with other people, but I am aggrieved at God. It would have been better if He hadn’t created me in the first place if I was fated to live with so much suffering,” she said. "Is there anything other than death that can help me?”
In theory, the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, passed in 2009, should offer Kamela protection and redress. It covers the various things that have happened to her, outlawing a range of abuses from assault and rape to marriages that are coercive, involve minors or amount to a transaction between the families concerned.
Ghazanfar says translating this legislation into practice needs coordination between all government agencies, not just the women’s affairs ministry.
"There’s a long way to go to implement the law,” she conceded.
Qodsia Niazi, who heads the prosecution service department that deals with violence against women, says obstacles to making the law work include traditional values and attitudes, the general security situation, the impunity of the rich and powerful, and a shortage of female staff in Afghanistan’s legal and judicial institutions.
However, Niazi said, some prosecutions have been successful.
"We have dealt with 1,320 cases of violence against women since last year [ending March 2012], mostly concerning assault, harassment, coercion to prostitution, sexual abuse and mutilation," she said.
She argues that fair, well-publicised trials will serve an exemplary purpose.
"People have welcomed two public trials, one a case where a father sexually abused his daughter, and the other involving a man who assaulted and mutilated his wife before imprisoning her in a toilet for six months,” she said. “Such trials are very effective in reducing violence against women."
Others are less upbeat about the prospects for change.
"Has anyone who murdered a woman ever been executed?” asked Samira, a university student in the capital Kabul. “That makes it obvious that the government has no intention of protecting women’s rights. Nor can these so-called institutions do anything, either."
Samira says years of talking about rights for women, and the proliferation of institutions dedicated to this aim, have resulted in very little.
"For the whole of a decade, the so-called women’s rights defence institutions have pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Women’s rights have become lucrative,” she said, “Yet rights for women have not been assured, and the violence has gone up rather than down. All these conferences and slogans are purely symbolic. Everyone has started up an NGO in the name of women and is making money."
One of the arguments often made in the campaign against violence is that many Afghans mistakenly conflate local ultra-conservative traditions with Islam.
Daiulhaq, the deputy minister for the Hajj and religious affairs, says his institution is working hard to dispel such perceptions, with new departments focusing on gender issues and on Islamic teachings on women’s rights. In addition, he said, mosque prayer leaders were being asked to devote part of their weekly sermons to women’s rights and the evils of violence against them.
Despite this, Parwin Rahimi, head of the AIHRC’s women’s rights support and development department, accuses the religious affairs ministry of shirking its responsibilities.
“I am sure religious scholars do not ignore the truth, but certain people whose own interests could be at risk are blocking cooperation," she said.
Specifically, she said, the ministry had raised objections to the law on eradicating violence against women on the grounds that it conflicted with Islamic precepts.
Keramatullah Sediqi, director of Islamic research at the ministry, said the anti-violence legislation had deficiencies that needed to be addressed, such as the penalties which courts could impose, and the need for the law to set out “penalties if a woman commits violence against men".