Women in Afghanistan
After decades of war and conflict, women and children have been left a forgotten and marginalized segment of the population. Since the demise of the Taliban, some advances have been made in urban areas, but serious problems remain and Afghan women and girls remain much worse off than before the Taliban emerged. Despite the vast store of wisdom that women could bring to the issues in Afghanistan, they continue to be marginalized, treated as irrelevant, and in many cases horribly abused.
Despite laws setting a minimum age of 16 years for girls to marry, girls much younger, some as young as six, are being forced into marriages. Far too many cases take place on a daily basis and are not properly addressed. Even cases where perpetrators are arrested are often not pursued or perpetrators are released after serving only a small part of their rightful sentence. Women’s organizations have documented dramatically increasing cases of women and girls setting themselves on fire in order to avoid forced marriages or to get out of abusive marriages, because they feel they have no alternatives.
Women and children who are married are often abused by their husbands in horrific ways. Efforts by the women or their families to obtain justice are typically fruitless and sometimes family members end up in prison for trying. Tragically, women and girls often fall further victim to in-laws or even their own families who mercilessly reject them and shame them because of the abuse.
These cases are evidence of deep and far-reaching problems that must be explored and dealt with in much greater length than we are able at this time. As a result, our campaign focuses on a particular issue affecting women’s rights in Afghanistan, the recent passage of the Shi’a personal status law.
Fatima (age 23) was abandoned by her husband together with her two small children. She cannot produce milk and has no money for food. Her children are malnourished, and she lives on scraps provided by a neighbour who gets them out of the garbage. She was severely beaten by her husband and receives death threats from him while her mother-in-law watches and sometimes helps. Her father has died, and in Afghan society she is an outcast.
The Shi’a Personal Status Law
On July 27, 2009, the government of Afghanistan published a new personal status law to cover the minority Shi’a population of Afghanistan. The law, as it entered into force, was a modified version of an earlier proposal that was strongly objected to by international observers. Because the modified law entered into force in quiet and with very little publicity, women’s rights and human rights organizations, international observers, and foreign governments had no opportunity to object until after it had come into effect.
It is true that the law was modified from the original proposal; however, it still has provisions that are of serious concern and clearly violate the Afghan constitution, international human rights law, and Afghanistan’s express international commitments and obligations. In fact, despite the amendments, the law as passed is not really better than the original and is arguably worse.
A bizarre and outrageous provision in the original law that required Shi’a women to have sex with their husbands at a minimum every four days received particular attention in western media. The law also removed the need for consent within marriage effectively legalizing rape. It prohibited Shi’a women from working or even leaving their home without their husband’s permission, and granted exclusive custody of children to fathers and grandfathers.
The final version of the Shi’a personal status law is effectively no better than the original proposal. The provision requiring wives to have sexual relations with their husbands at a minimum every four days has been replaced with a provision that allows husbands to withhold basic necessities, including food, if their wives refuse to meet their sexual demands. With this provision the law sanctions a form of marital rape since a threat to withdraw the necessities of life constitutes coercion and effectively voids any consent a wife may give. It leaves Shi’a women at the complete mercy of the sexual whims and demands of their husbands. The revised law also allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying “blood money” to his victim and retains the other discriminatory provisions of the original draft.
The Shi’a personal status law perpetuates and condones the dehumanization and abuse of Afghan women. It is in clear violation of international law and Afghanistan’s own constitution. The state has no business dictating sexual relations between married spouses in Afghanistan or anywhere else. These are private matters to be settled between a husband and wife and the state’s only role should be to ensure that any abuse, in most cases by the husband, is dealt with under appropriate criminal sanctions. Without oversimplifying the issue too much it is fair to say that, to the extent that there are problems in the bedrooms of Afghanistan, many of these problems will be solved if the government would put an end to the practices of forced and underage marriages.
International human rights law recognizes that women are not objects to be used by men for their physical pleasures or needs, whether sexual or otherwise. Women are the backbone of society. They are the mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces, and grandmothers without whom Afghan society cannot exist, let alone flourish.
Women are human beings with desires and needs of their own that require and deserve respect. Anything less does not diminish women. Rather those men who would withhold that respect and treat women as something less than human, who would surely treat their animals better than they treat their wives, actually debase themselves.
Unfortunately, in many societies including many segments of the Afghan population, women who are treated in such demeaning and shameful ways end up bearing the shame that rightfully belongs on their husbands and other male relatives. Such a situation dishonours the entire society. Bringing honour and humanity back to such a society can start with individual spouses and families adopting right attitudes and making right choices, but ultimately it requires a response from the entire society.
The 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan
Any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens of Afghanistan shall be forbidden. The citizens of Afghanistan, man and woman, have equal rights and duties before the law. (Emphasis added)
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:
(a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of … customary and all other practices which are based … on stereotyped roles for men and women; …
1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:
(c) The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution;
(d) The same rights and responsibilities as parents, irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children; …
(f) The same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, … of children, …
The government of Afghanistan must repeal the discriminatory portions of the Shi’a personal status law immediately and take effective measures to eliminate forced and underage marriages by enforcing existing laws. It must engage in a deliberate campaign to educate the Afghan public about these issues and support those segments in the population that are seeking appropriate responses to these issues. It must review existing laws to ensure that they meet international human rights standards and hold local authorities accountable when they fail to enforce the law.
On a practical level, the government must improve opportunities for education for children and ensure equal opportunities for boys and girls. It must increase opportunities for women from all segments of the Afghan population to get involved in their communities and in politics. This will require educating the public and overcoming deeply ingrained traditional notions and customs and will not happen overnight. Until Afghan society can adopt these new norms, it will require the full and active support of the government through enforcement of laws ensuring equality and protective measures for women who decide to work, go to school, or get involved in public life.
It is also very important to involve Afghan women’s rights organizations and Afghan women in general, effectively and not just nominally, in the process of developing laws that protect the rights of women and children, shi’a and others, and that accord with international human rights standards. Afghan women must have a full and equal voice in building the foundation for a strong and thriving Afghanistan.
Please speak out and send a message to the government of Afghanistan, directly and through your own government officials, that the human rights abuses are unacceptable. Afghan girls and women deserve better. The Afghan people deserve better and we must raise our voices on their behalf…