Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Sameela Sikandari to UN Dispatch. Sameela is a native of Afghanistan and gender equality advocate currently residing in the UK .
The sun beats down on the snow streaked peaks, the winding river and the neat, square compounds of sandstone. It lights up the valley, the mountains, the villages, and the two women whose bodies swing from nooses in a tree. This is Afghanistan. It is 2013.
On 27th November 2013, the dead bodies of two women were found hanging from a tree in Logar province, Afghanistan. Not much is known about these women. According to the spokesperson of the governor of Logar, one of the women may have been over forty years of age and the other in her twenties. They have not yet been identified, and nor has the reason behind their murder. They were hanged naked.
Who were these women? Were they mother and daughter? Were they two wives of a common husband? Were they fresh victims of an honor killing? No details have yet emerged about them or why they were hanged and it’s possible that they never will. However, the circumstances of their hanging suggest that some sort of perverted justice was meted out–and there is a wealth of cases which illustrate the types of misdemeanor for which such punishments would be thought appropriate by the religious hardliners dominate many parts of this country.
Unfortunately, cases such as these are very common in Afghanistan, where women and girls are abused, raped and killed on a daily basis. It is extremely uncommon that anyone is held accountable for miscarriages of justice such as this. Due to corruption in the courts and the police service, Afghanistan’s justice system mostly serves the rich and powerful men in the country.
More than a decade after the fall of the Taliban, women and girls are still being openly attacked by the Taliban and other extremist groups for the ‘crimes’ of working outside the house, going to school or simply for speaking up for their basic rights. Women are accused of adultery without enough or any evidence and they are imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of running away from domestic abuse. There is no systematic government support for women, and even where laws are in place the justice system is incapable of protecting the basic rights of citizens.
Last week it was reported that the government was considering bringing back public stoning as a punishment for adultery. This was just another addition to the string of setbacks to swiftly wash away the rights for which both men and women have fought for many years, some paying with their lives. Other setbacks include the government’s cutting the number of women seats on the provincial council and drawing up a criminal code whose provisions make it nigh on impossible to convict anybody of domestic abuse. Thanks to the international outcry, and to male and female advocates in Afghanistan and around the world, after a few days of silence the government backed away to bring back stoning. But as Human Rights Watch’s Heather Barr says:
Of course it’s a huge relief that the government appears eager to disown this proposal now, but this is not an aberration that appeared out of the blue, it is just the latest in a long string of efforts to roll back women’s rights over the last half year, many of which have been successful. It is time for donors to wake up and realise that if there is not constant pressure on the Afghan government to respect women’s rights, there will be no women’s rights.
Women working in the public sphere are assassinated on a chillingly frequent basis, and their killers are rarely brought to justice. They are regularly threatened by extremist groups and they don’t get any protection from the government when they report these threats.
Last month a young couple was beheaded in Helmand Province to preserve the ‘honor’ of the family. The pair was reportedly kidnapped from their home by ten men who broke in to the house; their decapitated corpses were found in a graveyard the next day. The family and relatives of the girl are believed to be behind this murder.
Women and girls are killed in the name of honor mainly when a girl is believed to have brought ‘shame’ to her family by refusing to marry the man who was chosen by her family, or when she falls in love with someone of whom the family doesn’t approve. 406 cases of honour killings and rape were registered between 2011-2013, but the true figure is believed to be much higher as a large number of such cases are kept secret due to cultural and traditional sensitivities.
The number of women and girls who have been victims of violence this year alone is too long to recount but a few of the reported cases can tell the stories of many: Halima, 20 and mother of two children was shot dead in a public execution in April this year by her father to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family; Najiba 22 was shot dead in front of her villagers on allegations of adultery in July, video was watched around the world; in September this year Sushmita Banerjee, an Indian author was killed outside her home in Afghanistan, Sub inspector Negar was shot dead by two gunmen on her way to work, she had taken over duties of Helmand’s top police officer Islam Bibi who was shot dead by unknown gunmen earlier in July this year.
The lawlessness and violence against women has increased over the last couple of years. According to the AIHRC the number of cases of violence against women is 24.7% higher compared to the figure registered last year. This includes cases of physical and psychological violence and underage and forced marriages.
Sometimes, if they are lucky and not killed or arrested on the way, some of these women can find refuge in shelters such as those run by charities like Women for Afghan Women, where they are protected. However, inevitably the number and capacity of these shelters is limited and unable to cope with the increasing number of women that require rescuing. The sustainability of these shelters is also at risk, because they are entirely funded by international donors who are falling away as we approach the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
Despite many challenges, Afghan women have fought hard for their basic rights, and have made significant progress over the last decade in terms of education, work, media representation and raising awareness of their plight. This progress can only be sustained if the international community continues its support after the 2014 withdrawal and does not turn its back on Afghanistan once again, as was the case during the Taliban regime.
The fight for human rights is a collective responsibility of us all around the world. As American and NATO forces prepare to depart from the country next year, the international community must step up and keep their promise to the women of Afghanistan. They must continue their support for the human rights organizations working on the ground, and for the grassroots movements taking place across the country. They must not allow the hard won rights of these women to be compromised for the political experiments of their governments.
This is a critical moment for Afghanistan as a whole but women particularly face an uncertain and dangerous future. The fragile human rights gains made over the last twelve years must not be allowed to slip away.