Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghanistan: Action Urged Over Street Abuse
Najla, a 20-year old undergraduate at a private university in Kabul province, is contemplating giving up her degree.
She says that continuous sexual harassment on campus has made it nearly impossible to continue with her political science studies.
“I am teased and annoyed in class as well; I am constantly harassed,” she told IWPR. “I have a Facebook account and whenever I open my inbox I see that have boys sent me inappropriate, horrible pictures, videos and messages which irritates and upsets me a lot.”
Her fellow student, 24-year old Noorya, says that dressing modestly has no effect on the level of harassment she is subjected to.
Although she goes to university each day wearing a burka, any attempt to speak to a teacher or fellow student is interpreted as a sexual advance, she said.
“There was a teacher at the college who I thought of as like my own father, but one day he has asked me something unexpected that I could have never even imagined,” Noorya explained. “ I was so angry and upset I left his class and never attended his lessons again.”
Sexual harassment remains rampant among Afghan society, exacerbated by conservative cultural traditions and often severely impacting on women’s life outside the home.
A new law that would criminalise harassment for the first time was passed by parliament in November 2016 and is awaiting ratification by the president.
But many fear that the law is unlikely to be implemented, and that deeper-lying issues in Afghan society need to be addressed before any real change is achieved.
“Many women are victims of sexual harassment both on the street and in their workplaces,” said civil society activist Maryam Zurmati, adding that she had also received many reports of harassment and abuse within the home environment.
“I have already shared these concerns about sexual harassment with the ministry of women’s affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and other relevant agencies, but they have not taken this issue seriously and the problem is now getting bigger and means our society is facing a serious challenge,” she continued.
Zurmati said that she believed one issue was that young people often had to wait a long time until they had enough money to marry.
High bride prices place a massive strain on often-impoverished households in Afghanistan, and young men are often forced to go abroad illegally to find work and raise the money to get married.
This sexual deprivation, she continued, meant that “they try to satisfy their desires and needs in the wrong way, which is against both Afghan culture and Islamic teaching and values”.
Islamic scholar Mawlawi Abdul Zahir agreed that sexual frustration was a factor and called for imams and parents to teach young people that this behaviour was unacceptable.
“High bride-prices and other immoral traditions in Afghan society are completely against Islam,” he said.
Others say that harassment is fuelled by misogyny and wider issues of power and control, with women working outside the home are particularly vulnerable.
Azizurahman Feroza, a 28-year-old office worker, said, “I get so stressed out when I am on my way to the office or on the way back home. I always get harassed and teased by young boys and men.”
This had affected her mental health, she explained, adding that she was always frightened.
“When I am on my way into the office, men harass me with comments such as, ‘Come with me, what is your phone number’ and, cars follow and chase me. Some men mock and annoy me by asking me, ‘why are your clothes so short, look at your headscarf,’ and some of them whistle at me.”
Ahmadi, press advisor at the ministry of women’s affairs, said that while sexual harassment and assault remained a major challenge, the vast majority of cases went unreported.
“Last year we registered 41 cases of rape and 36 of sexual harassment against women,” Ahmadi said.
Latifa Sultani, head of the AIHRC’s women’s rights department, said that they also received many complaints about sexual harassment but lacked any proper figures.
Fraidoon Obaidi, chief of the Kabul police criminal investigation department, told IWPR, “We have reviewed and dealt with approximately 30 sexual violence cases during the last six months.”
He said that those subjected to abuse needed to formally report incidents so that justice could be done and perpetrators made an example of.
Obaidi says: “I call for people to go to the police and register complaints against those who harass them so the culprits can be punished in accordance with the law.”
This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.
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