Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: Calls for Action on Domestic Abuse

Failure to implement existing laws means that abusers can act with impunity.
By Mina Habib

Nazia waited to speak to an official at the ministry of women’s affairs in Kabul. Her hands were badly bruised – visible signs of a recent beating.

Now 22, Nazia says her family took her out of school when she was just 12 in order to marry her off to a man ten years older than her.

“I didn’t know anything about marriage, childcare or household chores,” she said. “I cried for many nights. My husband beat me, and we didn’t have a good relationship from the very beginning.”

The domestic violence continued for the next decade, and other members of her husband’s family also assaulted her.

“A few days ago, they beat and broke my hand after accusing me of having an affair,” Nazia said. “I’ve come here now to find someone who can help me.”

Married women are often vulnerable to abuse from their husbands and in-laws in Afghanistan, where domestic violence is a feature of life for many. The custom of preserving “family honour” make it difficult for victims to seek outside help. There are laws to protect women, but activists says these are often ignored.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) says it is concerned about the rates of abuse being reported. Last year, more than 2,000 women visited AIHRC offices around the country to register incidents of violence.

Adila Amarkhil, deputy head of the AIHRC’s department for women’s rights, said that official figures represented just a fraction of the total, as many victims were unable to report cases.

“The failure to implement the law has created many problems,” Amarkhil said. “No one will feel safe until the laws are applied properly and punctiliously. Men assume they have a right to beat women. Those who do that are not afraid of the law. Dishonest practices, the influence of powerful figures, and judicial corruption mean that offenders go unpunished.”

Amarkhil cited the tragic incident in March this year when a woman called Farkhunda was beaten to death by a Kabul mob after being falsely accused of burning a Koran.

Although suspects were arrested following the attack, four of the men who were sentenced to death for their part in the mob violence later had their sentences commuted by a secret court. There was also criticism of the leniency that judges showed towards the policemen who stood aside and failed to prevent Farkhunda’s death.

WHEN DOMESTIC VIOLENCE BECOMES ROUTINE

Kabul resident Mahgul, 70, was married off at 14 to a man nearly twice her age.

“I was beaten from the first day of my marriage,” she said. “When I asked my mother-in-law the reason why, she told me that beating women shows men’s authority. A man who does not beat his wife is shamed. It was then that I realised I was just going to have to put up with my life, with all its problems.”

Mahgul said it was not just her husband who was violent – the other members of his family felt they had a right to beat her.

“Today’s women are much better off; they defend their rights. If they are injured, they can at least go to hospital. We never had that right,” she said, adding, “Why did God create women to be so inferior?”

Women’s rights have improved since the collapse of the Taleban government in 2001, with increased access to education and employment. Despite this, serious issues remain.

The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, enacted by presidential decree in 2009, prohibited a range of abuses from assault and rape to marriages that are coercive, involve minors or amount to a transaction between the two families. However, this law was rejected by parliament in May 2013, and has been shelved ever since.

Farzana Safi, from the ministry of women’s affairs, said that the stalled law envisaged protections from specific abuses.

“Under Article 23 of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, violence is a criminal offence punishable by three months in prison. If the woman is disabled as a result of the attack, the penalty is increased,” she said.

Kabul university law lecturer Shahla Farid pointed out that other, existing laws could also be used to prosecute violence, but cases were rarely brought.

“There are penalties for those who beat women in criminal law as well as in the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, but unfortunately the lack of security, corruption in the judiciary, and the low level of awareness about the law means that [perpetrators] escape punishment,” she said.

“Violence against women cannot be resolved through slogans and seminars,” agreed Fatana Gailani, head of the Afghanistan Women’s Council. “Unfortunately, these matters are only tackled in a superficial manner.”

Conservative parliamentarians claimed that the legislation on violence against women contradicted Islamic law. However, religious scholars emphasise that violence against women is unacceptable.

Mohammad Ayaz Niazi, a professor in the Sharia department of Kabul university and a preacher at a local mosque, said ignorance of Islamic law made men think they had the right to beat women.

“But we see that today that these [Islamic] laws are not implemented in our society,” he said. “Religious scholars can contributed to reducing this phenomenon by speaking out about women’s rights in the mosques, and stopping men from beating women.”

Some women are left with nowhere to turn. Razia, 23, was also seeking help at the department of women’s affairs.

Originally from Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, she said she had suffered years of mistreatment and daily beatings at the hands of her husband and his relatives, until he took a second wife.

“My husband divorced me and took my children, and I couldn’t see them for many days,” she said. “My husband used to beat me every day under various pretexts until he married a second wife. Now I have nowhere to live and no one to turn to.”

Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.

More IWPR's Global Voices