Last week we marked 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It’s timely then to spare a thought for the tens of millions of women in the underdeveloped parts of the world who continue to suffer the menaces of poverty, wars, disasters, rape and every form of injustice.
In July last year, Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghan woman appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as a portrait of Afghan women in despair. Aisha had fled her in-laws to escape abuse and domestic violence. She was caught by the local Taliban and sentenced to have her nose cut off as a punishment for breaking the archaic local customs and to make an example out of it for other women who might dare do what Aisha had done. She pled for mercy, protested her innocence and the fact that she had fled abuse but her calls were ignored. Her brother-in-law held her down as her husband sliced off her ears and then cut off her nose.
In the Afghan city of Herat, the burns ward in the main hospital at any given time is crowded with young women who have either attempted self-immolation to escape domestic violence, or have been set on fire by family members, usually their husbands. For many, self-immolation is the only way out of abuse and violence in the family. Cases of self-immolation by women are on the increase. In Herat alone, there has been a 35 per cent surge in the number of women committing self-immolation.
More recently, a court in Kabul sentenced 19-year-old Gulnaz to 12 years in jail after she was found guilty of adultery. Gulnaz had been raped and had borne the child of her attacker, thus bringing dishonour to the family according to local beliefs. She and her child are now incarcerated in Kabul’s Badam Bagh jail along with other women locked up for similar "crimes". The only way to end her incarceration, she has been told, is to marry her attacker and restore her honour.
A report just released by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan states that traditional practices and attitudes have resulted in the abuse of women and concealment of crimes against women. Authorities and the judiciary are reluctant to prosecute people responsible for domestic abuse but do prosecute women who, like Aisha, attempt to flee abusive or forced marriages. The issues that forced them to flee in the first place are often not addressed.
The report also points to the fact that Afghanistan’s 2009 federal legislation for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) is only sporadically used to protect women against violence or to prosecute those responsible. Instead, most cases are addressed and verdicts are passed on the bases of decisions by traditional customs, councils of elders and Sharia law — often resulting in punishment and further abuse of the victim herself. The government, marred by corruption and instability, "has not yet succeeded in implementing the law to the vast majority of cases of violence against women".
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Afghan women is their limited access to medical services. A 2010 Save The Children report named Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to be a mother. Every day about 50 women die in childbirth, only 14 per cent of childbirths are attended by skilled health personnel. Every mother is likely to suffer the loss of at least one child and the average life expectancy of an Afghan woman is just over 44 years.
The overall condition of women in Afghanistan remains very difficult. There are, however, signs of hope.
The UNAMA report states that women’s access to justice is improving. There is growing awareness among Afghan women about legal protections available to them and there are women’s shelters in some of the major cities. It reports that increasing number of provinces are now applying the EVAW law to provide women with legal protection. Organisations such as Young Women for Change are now on the streets to take a stand against harassment and abuse as well as raise awareness amongst other women.
More and more women have access to education too. Of the 7 million primary school enrolments in Afghanistan in the last decade, around 38 per cent have been girls and 31 per cent of all teachers are women. Women are now joining the military, the police and training to become pilots. For over five years a woman, Habiba Sarabi, has run the province of Bamiyan and the city of Nili in Daikundi province has a female mayor. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission is chaired by a woman, the Afghan National Army has a female general and a large number of women are enrolled in the universities and vocational training centers.
International aid agencies have trained more than 2400 midwives who are now helping reduce maternal and child mortality rates. Other women work at the offices of national and international NGOs in the major cities. Afghan women regularly feature on television and radio shows including Afghan Star, the local equivalent of Australian Idol.
Life in war-torn Afghanistan is hard for men and for women. Women, however, bear the brunt of violence and injustice thanks to archaic traditional customs, weak implementation of the law and lack of will and power on the part of the authorities to assist those in despair. For them it is an uphill and long battle rife with despair — but there are glimmers of hope.
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