Harmful traditional practices violating women’s rights, including honour killings, child marriage and giving away girls to settle disputes, are pervasive in Afghanistan, says a United Nations report released today that calls on the Government to implement a new law aimed at ending the scourge.
Based on research and interviews in nearly all 34 provinces with women, men, Government authorities, religious leaders and community groups, the human rights unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) found that the practices occur among all ethnic groups, in rural and urban areas, and that the most harmful among them violate not only Afghan law but also Islamic Sharia law.
“As long as women and girls are subject to practices that harm, degrade and deny them their human rights, little meaningful and sustainable progress for women’s rights can be achieved in Afghanistan,” UNAMA’s Human Rights Director Georgette Gagnon told a news conference in Kabul, the capital, calling on religious leaders to take a lead in eliminating the practices.
The 56-page report – Harmful Traditional Practices and Implementation of the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan – notes that millions of Afghan women and girls face pain, suffering, humiliation and marginalization from the discriminatory views of the role and position of women, and it stresses that religious leaders and community elders play a key role in both ending and continuing the scourge.
Many men and women interviewed feel the way to end harmful practices is to provide religious leaders with training and education on women’s rights as their moral voice can persuade local communities that the practices not only harm and degrade women but are in most cases inconsistent with Islamic law, it says.
Harmful practices are further entrenched by the Government’s inability to fully protect women’s rights, the report adds, calling for speedy implementation of the 2009 Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) that criminalizes many harmful practices such as buying and selling women for marriage and offering girls for dispute resolution.
It also criminalizes forced and child marriage, forced isolation, forcing a woman to commit self-immolation and denying women the right to education, work and health services, and prescribes preventive measures for implementation by seven Government ministries.
“The urgent need now is to raise awareness of the EVAW law and ensure its full implementation,” Ms. Gagnon said. “The Afghan police and judiciary require far more guidance, support and oversight from national-level authorities on how to properly apply the law.”
UNAMA found that some Afghan law enforcement authorities are unaware of the EVAW law, while many are unwilling or unable to apply it, a main reason why such practices persist. Many Afghans interviewed said the police and judiciary often fail to enforce laws on women’s rights, pursuing cases where women are perceived to have transgressed social norms but failing to act when they report violence or in cases of child marriage, claiming these are ‘private matters.’
This is shown by the large number of women jailed for ‘moral crimes,’ the report says, noting that when social and cultural circumstances do not allow women and girls to oppose harmful traditional practices or escape violence, they sometimes run away from home.
While running away is not a crime, law enforcement authorities often arrest, jail and prosecute such runaways, charging them with intending to commit zina (sexual intercourse outside of marriage).
The report stresses that the consequences of child marriages have been widely demonstrated to be lasting and damaging to the health, education and well-being of girls. Afghanistan has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the world, with many deaths among those married under the age of 16. Among the most tragic consequences of harmful practices is self-immolation, where women set themselves on fire often as a cry for help or as their only escape from violence.
Among its recommendations, the report calls on the Government, including President Hamid Karzai, to fully implement the EVAW law, and to issue as an immediate step a decree freeing girls and women arrested for running away. Courts and prosecutors must apply the EVAW law and police and prosecutors must promptly investigate and prosecute all complaints of harmful practices.
It calls on religious leaders, together with the ministries of Hajj and Religious Affairs and Women’s Affairs, to develop training and awareness-raising programmes for mullahs, imams and religious teachers about women’s rights, violence against women and the EVAW law so that they speak out on those practices that are inconsistent with Islamic teachings.