Although the situation of women marginally improved during the year, international gender experts considered Afghanistan a very dangerous country for women. Gains in women’s rights and advances in terms of socio-economic indicators remained tenuous at best. Pursuant to the constitution, the 2009 Shia Personal Status Law governs family and marital issues for the 20 percent of the population who are Shia. Although the law officially recognizes the Shia minority, the law adversely affects gender equality and was controversial both domestically and internationally due to its failure to promote gender equality. Articles in the law of particular concern include those on minimum age of marriage, polygyny, right of inheritance, right of self-determination, freedom of movement, sexual obligations, and guardianship.
Rape and Domestic Violence: The EVAW law, which also came into force in 2009, criminalizes violence against women, including rape, battery, or beating; humiliation; intimidation; and the refusal of food. The law specifically punishes rape with life imprisonment, and if the act results in the death of the victim, the law provides for the death sentence for the perpetrator. The law punishes the “violation of chastity of a woman…that does not result in adultery (such as touching)” with imprisonment of up to seven years. Under the law rape does not include spousal rape. However, there was limited political will to implement the law, and it was neither widely understood nor successfully enforced. There were reports that women who sought assistance under the EVAW in a case of rape were subjected to virginity tests. Sharia also impeded successful prosecution of rape cases.
During the year authorities prosecuted 38 cases under the EVAW law. More than 500 cases were referred to the Violence Against Women (VAW) unit in Kabul during the year, indicating increased awareness of women’s rights; the Kabul VAW unit obtained 26 convictions. Women came from 21 provinces to report cases to the Kabul VAW unit, including from as far away as Nimroz and Zabul. The newly opened Herat VAW unit initiated 59 cases during the year. The Balkh VAW unit, which opened in June, sent 21 cases out of 66 referrals to the primary court for prosecution. Government entities, including the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and law enforcement officials, referred 16 percent of all cases.
Prosecutors in some remote provinces were unaware of the EVAW, and others were subject to community pressure to release defendants due to familial loyalties, threat of harm, or bribes. Men accused of rape often claimed the victim agreed to consensual sex, leading to an adultery charge against the victim. The MOI’s Anti-Crime Police reported 57 cases of rape between March 2011 and February 2012 and another 63 cases of violence against women; the actual number of cases was probably much higher. The MOI reported 77 arrests in connection with those rape cases. Statistics on convictions were unavailable by year’s end. Rapes were difficult to document due to social stigma. Male victims seldom came forward. Peer sexual abuse was allegedly common. Female victims faced stringent societal reprisal, from being deemed unfit for marriage to being imprisoned.
On December 1, Gulnaz, a 20-year-old rape victim, was pardoned following international outcry and lobbying by human rights groups after serving two and a half years of a 12-year sentence for the crime of “adultery by force.” Judicial authorities initially gave her the option to marry her attacker or stay in jail for her full 12-year sentence. Following the intervention of President Karzai, the conditions were dropped, and she and her eight-month-old baby were released on December 13.
The penal code criminalizes assault, and courts entered judgments against domestic abusers under this provision. According to NGO reports, hundreds of thousands of women continued to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions of state such as police and justice systems. A UN women’s commission report released in January found that 87 percent of women were victims of domestic violence. Killing, assault, and sexual violence against women commonly involved family members as suspects.
Police response to domestic violence was limited, in part due to low reporting, sympathetic attitudes towards perpetrators, and limited protection for victims. There were reports of government officials’ complicity in violations of the EVAW law. For example in rape cases in Baghlan, the victims were imprisoned and the perpetrators were freed. The ANP in Burkah district allegedly raped a girl and assaulted her parents in Bat Tob village on November 26. Some police and judicial officials were not aware or convinced that rape was a serious criminal offense and investigating a rape case was rarely a priority. Authorities infrequently prosecuted abusers, and if cases came to court, the accused often were exonerated or punished lightly. NGOs confirmed that domestic violence occurred in many homes but went largely unreported due to societal acceptance of the practice.
According to the AIHRC, between March and November there were 3,147 cases of violence against women reported, of which 1075 were cases of physical violence, and 269 sexual abuse cases. Most women did not seek legal assistance for domestic or sexual abuse because they did not know their rights or because they feared prosecution themselves or return to their family or the perpetrator. Women sometimes turned to shelters for assistance and sometimes practiced self-immolation. Provincial authorities in Herat, one of the few provinces with a burn unit, reported 84 incidents of self-immolation during the year. The AIHRC reported 63 female suicides and 70 cases of self-immolation, some of which may have been honor killings disguised as suicides, through November.
NGOs that ran women’s shelters in Kabul reported an increase in referrals from police, possibly reflecting improved ANP training and awareness. Women’s access to shelters also increased due to international efforts to open three new shelters and expansion to more remote provinces. However, space at the 19 formal and informal shelters across the country was limited. Women in need of shelter who could not find a place often ended up in prison, either due to a lack of shelter alternatives, for their own protection, or based on local interpretation of “running away” as a morals crime.
Forty percent of females in shelters were girls younger than 18, most often escaping forced marriages and domestic abuse. In January, following a three-year investigation of claims that women’s shelters were akin to brothels, the government announced a plan to bring all shelters under the MOWA’s direction. Human rights NGOs worked with the MOWA to change the regulations and stop the proposed nationalization of shelters. The final shelter regulation approved by the Council of Ministers, but awaiting the president’s approval, was modified to have the MOWA regulate all shelters, but NGOs retained their ability to run them.
Because “unaccompanied” women were not accepted in society, women who could not be reunified with their family had nowhere to go. The difficulty of finding durable solutions for women compelled to stay in shelters was compounded by societal attitudes toward shelters, linked to the belief that “running away from home” was a serious violation of social mores. Government officials argued that control of the shelters would facilitate long-term solutions and allow for eventual reintegration of women into society. To that end, there were reports that the MOWA and other government entities helped arrange at least six marriages for women who could not return to their families.
Policewomen trained to help victims of domestic violence were hindered by instructions to wait for victims to reach out. There were 355 female response unit (FRU) investigators nationwide working out of 146 FRU offices, which were staffed primarily by female police officers who addressed violence and crimes against women, children, and families. Women serving in civilian and ANP positions in the MOI offered mediation and resources to prevent future domestic violence.
Extended family violence was reportedly widespread and difficult to prosecute. In July a prosecutor in Uruzgan province released on bail the father-in-law of Bibi Aisha, the 16-year-old girl from Uruzgan province whose husband and in-laws cut off her nose and ears in September 2009 because she had run away after years of domestic violence. The accused had served 11 months in jail without movement on the prosecution of the case. At year’s end, a request to transfer jurisdiction to Kandahar was pending, but further pursuit of the alleged perpetrators appeared unlikely.
Harmful Traditional Practices: The EVAW law criminalizes forced or underage marriage and baadh (the giving of a female relative to another family to settle a debt or dispute). An estimated 70 percent of marriages were forced, and despite laws banning the practice, a majority of brides were younger than the legal marriage age of 16 (or 15 with a guardian’s and a court’s approval). In December a 15-year-old woman in Baghlan province was rescued by police after being locked in a basement bathroom, having her finger nails pulled out, and being forced into prostitution by her 30-year-old husband and in-laws. The husband escaped arrest, but her mother-in-law and sister-in-law were in jail at year’s end. A survey of married women ages 20 to 24 found that 39 percent had been married before the age of 18. Very few marriages were registered, leaving forced marriages outside legal control. There were reports that women who sought assistance under the EVAW in a case of forced marriage or rape were subjected to virginity tests.
Of the 3,147 cases of violence against women reported between March and November by the AIHRC, 545 cases were classified as traditional and cultural violence, or those customary practices that violated women’s rights, such as child and forced marriages, the practice of exchanging women to settle disputes, forced isolation, and honor killings.
Local officials occasionally imprisoned women at the request of family members for opposing the family’s choice of a marriage partner or being charged with adultery or bigamy. Local officials imprisoned women in place of a family member who had committed a crime but could not be located. Some women remained in detention facilities because they had run away from home to escape domestic violence or the prospect of forced marriage.
The AIHRC documented 27 “honor killings” through September; however, the unreported number was believed to be much higher and thought to include reported cases of suicide and self-immolation that actually covered honor killings. Under the penal code, a man convicted of honor killing after finding his wife committing adultery cannot be sentenced to more than two years’ imprisonment. In November a spurned suitor and group of armed men doused three sisters with acid. The investigation was still pending and no one was arrested by year’s end.
The wide range of violence against women also included trafficking and abduction.
Sexual harassment: There is no law specifically prohibiting sexual harassment. Women who walked outside alone or went to work often experienced abuse or “eve-teasing,” including groping, or were followed on the streets in urban areas. Women who took on public roles that challenged gender stereotypes (such as female lawmakers, NGO leaders, and news broadcasters) received “night letters” most often sent by conservative elements, political powerbrokers, or insurgents to intimidate them and their families. NGOs reported increasing violence against women working in the public and nonprofit sectors, including killings.
Reproductive Rights: Women generally exercised little decision-making authority regarding marriage, timing of pregnancies, birthing practices, and child education.
Couples were free from government discrimination, coercion, and violence to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but family and community pressures to reproduce, the high prevalence of child and early marriages, and lack of accurate biological knowledge limited their ability to do so. Women could expect to bear on average 5.1 children in their lifetimes. Oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices, injectables, and condoms were available commercially and were provided at no cost in public and private health facilities and by community health workers. There was a 20 percent usage rate of most modern forms of contraception. Men and women were diagnosed and treated equally for sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, when health care was available.
The UN estimated maternal mortality at 372 deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2010, down from 1,400 in 2002. Although the situation improved, early marriage and pregnancy still puts girls at greater risk for premature labor, complications during delivery, and death in childbirth. Post-partum hemorrhage and obstructed labor were key causes of maternal mortality.
Discrimination: Women who reported cases of abuse or who sought legal redress for other matters reported pervasive discrimination within the judicial system. Local practices were discriminatory toward women, and in parts of the country where courts were not functional or knowledge of the law was minimal, elders relied on an interpretation of Sharia and tribal customs, which generally were discriminatory toward women. Most women reported limited access to justice in tribal shuras, where all presiding elders were men; women in some villages were not allowed any access for dispute resolution. Women’s advocacy groups reported that in some cases the government intervened informally with local courts to encourage them to interpret laws in ways favorable to women. However, many cases in remote districts were still resolved according to the local police officer’s or prosecutor’s discretion or interpretation of the law. When legal authorities were aware of the EVAW law and its implementation, women were able to get appropriate assistance.
Police, prosecutors, and judges discriminated against women in criminal and civil legal proceedings stemming from violence and forced marriages, but there were increasing numbers of female attorneys who successfully represented female clients.
Societal discrimination against women continued. Cultural prohibitions on free travel and leaving the home unaccompanied prevented many women from working outside the home and reduced their access to education, health care, police protection, and other social services. Women faced discrimination in access to and terms of employment and occupation. Some educated urban women found substantive work, but many were relegated to menial tasks. There were approximately 1,100 female police officers in a police force of more than 130,000. The government planned to increase the total number to 2,800; however, there was little evidence of efforts to recruit additional female police officers.
The MOWA and NGOs continued to promote women’s rights and freedoms. The Independent Administrative Reform & Civil Service Commission Gender Directorate worked on an action plan for increasing the percentage of women in the civil service to 30 percent (up from an estimated 26 percent) by 2013. The MOWA, the primary government agency responsible for addressing gender policy and the needs of women, had provincial offices, but the ministry and provincial line directorates suffered from a lack of capacity and resources, despite efforts of the international community to improve its capacity in line with national priority programs. The provincial offices assisted hundreds of women by providing legal and family counseling and referring women they could not directly assist to relevant organizations.
The country has achieved substantial improvements in health over the past decade, and public health statistics released in November indicated a steep drop in maternal mortality. The overall health situation of women and children remained poor, however, particularly among nomadic and rural populations and those in insecure areas. Similar to males, female life expectancy was 64 years of age. Rural women continued to suffer disproportionately from insufficient numbers of skilled health personnel, particularly female health workers.
Women and children were disproportionately the victims of preventable deaths due to communicable diseases compared to men. Although free health services were provided in public facilities, many households could not afford certain costs related to medicines or transportation to health care facilities, and many women were not permitted to travel to health facilities on their own.