Women's Rights only on Paper

The situation of women in Afghanistan is still appalling, claims the latest report from Amnesty International. Equality, as envisioned in the Afghan constitution, is still decades away. But small advances have been made. Petra Tabeling reports

photo: Medica Mondiale
It it still not uncommen for women in Afghanistan to be married at the age of nine or ten

​​A ten-year-old girl in the city of Herat has been married for the third time. Her husband is nearly eighty years old. The reality of women in the provinces of Afghanistan is still bitter, four years after the fall of the Taliban regime, and one-and-a-half years after the Afghan Grand Council, the Loya Jirga, resolved to legally stipulate the equality of man and woman in the Afghanistan constitution. But in Afghan reality official laws as yet generally only have validity on paper.

In its report, "Afghanistan – Women still under attack – a systematic failure to protect," published this year on May 30, the international human rights organization Amnesty International has drawn a bitter balance. Traditional patriarchal structures, which still survive in the judiciary, the family, and in other areas of society in Afghanistan, combined with a growing propensity to violence, make it difficult for girls and women to lead decent lives.

Beauty studios and stonings

Kidnappings, forced marriages, trade in women and girls, even stonings are still the greatest dangers that women in particular face in the rural areas of Afghanistan. To be sure, there are beauty studios and even of late sport studios in the capital city of Kabul. There are also women walking on the streets without burkas, but this is far removed from the reality of women in the countryside.

Here traditional legal systems, sharia, still have more authority than democratizing and reform processes. Tribal chiefs and "warlords," who held on to their power under Taliban rule, still have supreme jurisdiction in rural areas.

Girl marriages at the age of nine or ten

Such structures compromise the advances gained for women in the new constitution. Women, for instance, have regained the right to vote, learn professions, and attend school. Nearly 90 percent of the women can neither read nor write. But although the marriage age has been set at sixteen for women and eighteen for men, it is still not seldom for a girl to be married at age nine or ten.

As a rule, Afghan women hardly participate at all in public life. The human rights violations against women extend from threats in everyday life to rape and murder, according to the disturbing Amnesty report.

Their tormenters, men from the military or their own families, have little to fear in terms of prosecution, in contrast to women suspected of having committed an immoral act. Many women detained under very poor conditions in women's prisons do not know why they were arrested, nor are they aware of their rights, nor do they ever receive a trial.

In many places violence against women is not considered a crime. Demanding the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution is difficult without legal counsel. "For a single woman to live on her own in Kabul is still inconceivable," confirmed Margit Spindeler, director of the women's aid projects in Afghanistan organized by medica mondiale e.V.

Support for female victims of rape and torture

The women's rights organization, whose work is mentioned in the Amnesty Report, is trying to breach these structures by creating networks with influential persons in politics, administration, and the judiciary. Its most important goal is to change awareness within society about women's basic rights.

Since 2002 medica mondiale has carried out various projects in Kabul, and even more in the provinces. Afghan female specialists from medical and psychosocial fields are being taught how to deal with female victims of rape and torture, and Afghan female lawyers are being enlisted to look after inmates in the women's prisons.

Afghan female physicians from exile are also educating their compatriots, for instance, about drugs, AIDS, depression, and the increased risk of suicide among women in Afghanistan. "Meanwhile our work with the people is in demand, and today our Afghan workers can even travel to the countryside alone," summed up Afghanistan expert Spindeler.

Suicide – a rising trend

Alarming, however, is the rise in the number of suicides among women, according to the Amnesty report. Medica mondiale has also confirmed the increase. Several hundred women a year burn themselves to death out of frustration over their hopeless situation. But the exact reasons are not known, for in rural areas it is difficult to gather exact information about the circumstances.

Also disturbing is the rise in violence in the countryside. After twenty-five years of war and three years after the Taliban rule, the situation is still precarious. The attacks, occurring lately with ever greater frequency in the provinces of Kundus, Baghlan, Takhar, and Badakhshan, make it difficult for women in particular to live ordinary lives.

At least the presence of female security forces, trained since 2004, contributed to a female voter turnout of 40 percent for the election of Afghanistan president Karzai in October 2004. For the upcoming parliamentary elections in September 2005 the aid organizations hope for an even higher voter turnout among women.

Petra Tabeling

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce


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"Afghanistan - Women Still under Attack"
(PDF download, 306 KB)
Amnesty International
Medica Mondiale