behind barsIn the last twelve years since international forces arrived in Afghanistan to combat terrorism and fight against the Taliban, Afghanistan has witnessed many changes.

Concepts such as elections, rule of law, legislation, parliament, provincial council, the protection of human rights and especially the rights of women and children, all became controversial issues.

Lawmakers passed many laws. The groundbreaking Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was signed by president Hamid Karzai in 2009. Although it was not supported by Islamic fundamentalists when it came to Parliament earlier this year,  it remains as a presidential decree and it has had some success in protecting women. However, we need more time to bring positive changes to Afghanistan.

EVAW has four chapters and forty-four articles. It aims to support women, maintain family values, support victims of violence, prevent violence against women, and capture the perpetrators of crimes against women.

EVAW highlights twenty-two kinds of violence. Among them are rape, abuse, trading a girl or woman as restitution for murder or another crime, forced self-immolation, suicide, child marriage, denying access to education, health care, and jobs, among other things.

Chapter two discusses the obligations and commitments of the Afghanistan ministries, while chapters three and four are about punishment.

Article six says that victims of violence, both men and women, have a right to access healthcare, medical, legal and psychological services, especially if facing family violence and in need of a shelter or safe house, until their legal problems are solved.

But the law has many weaknesses. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has reported that the law is ineffective with regard to distinguishing rape from consensual sexual intercourse outside marriage—known as zina.

UNAMA encountered many instances of girls and women who fled their homes to avoid forced marriage or domestic violence, only to be arrested and usually charged and convicted of “intent to commit zina.” This is commonly referred to as a “moral crime.”

But “running away” and “home escape” are not crimes under Afghan law or under Sharia law. Even so, law enforcement authorities often arrest and prosecute girls for these moral crimes.

EVAW offers no protection for women or girls who run away to escape domestic violence and forced marriage. This situation is highlighted by the large number of women in prison for “moral” crimes.

The Karzai government has tried to give the laws more authority. On February 1, 2012, President Karzai issued a decree on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday pardoning many prisoners including female prisoners convicted of “running away from home.”

On March 8, 2012—International Women’s Day—there was another decree addressing pardoning and reduction of sentences of female prisoners. It stated: “The convicted women who ran away from their parents’ house in order to marry their ideal person or if they married their ideal person shall be forgiven unconditionally.”

However, women continue to be arrested and detained for running away despite recent public statements by Afghan officials condemning the practice.

Another concern is that EVAW requires a victim or her relative to file a complaint before state institutions will take action.

This means that when a victim withdraws a complaint or fails to file due to family pressure or fear of reprisal, the government is not required to investigate or prosecute a crime of violence against women.

However there are also some examples that show the law has been effective in punishing the perpetrators of crimes against women.

According to a UNAMA Human Rights report from Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Balkh provinces were the first provinces of Afghanistan to implement the EVAW law.

Last year when a pregnant Afghan woman was killed by her husband who chopped off her hands with an ax, the prosecutor of Badakhshan province punished her husband. He was sent to prison for twenty years.

In Balkh province a woman was killed and her perpetrator was punished and went to prison for twenty years.

Although the law has seen some success, some Islamic issues like polygamy remain too controversial to be addressed. Women believe that some of the Afghan safe houses are not safe for wives who run away from violence at home.

There is still much work to be done in Afghanistan and in the international community to ensure the safety of Afghan women and protect their rights.

But we can conclude that if we did not have EVAW, the situation would be worse and there would be even more violence against women, along with bigger patriarchy, silence among Afghan women voices, victims of violence, and armed conflicts.

By Masouma H. 

Photo: AFP/ Henghameh Fahimi