Violence Against Afghan Women Surged in 2013

As the American population shakes its head with disapproval, Afghan-U.S. pullout negotiations continue to drag on, and foreign troops prepare their wary withdrawal. Meanwhile, Afghan women are facing some of the worst brutality in recent history. According to the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, violent crime against Afghan women reached record levels in 2013, with a shocking 25 percent increase during the period from March to September.

Although life reportedly improved for women after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 — with Afghan females seeing a gain in political rights, an improvement of access to education, and a fifty percent decrease in child mortality rates — last year saw some of the country's most horrific and frequent cases of violence against women.

"The brutality of the cases is really bad," the chair of the AIHRC, Sima Samar, told Reuters. "Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape, mass rape..." She added: "It's against dignity, against humanity."

The reason for the drastic surge? Some of it has to do with the upcoming departure of aid workers and foreign troops, which has meant that women have recently become much more vulnerable to violent attacks. "The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence," Samar said. "There were people there trying to protect women. And that is not there anymore, unfortunately."

Women's rights did see significant improvements after the fall of Taliban. The Afghan constitution now states that “the citizens of Afghanistan — whether man or woman — have equal rights and duties before the law.” And over 27 percent of parliamentary seats are at present held by women. But minorities suffer — in 2009, President Hamid Karzai signed a law affecting Afghan Shi’a women (who make up less than 20 percent of the female population), that explicitly permits marital rape — and whatever legal improvements are made, are slow to be implemented.

"Laws are improved, but implementation of those laws are in the hands of warlords... I think we are going backwards," Suraya Pakzad, who runs women's shelters in several provinces, told Reuters.

The situation is, in general, pretty dire for women in Afghanistan. It's one of the worst places in the world to be a mother, with 1 in 50 women dying during pregnancy or childbirth, and 1 out 10 children dying before the age of five. Yet motherhood is the only route for most Afghan women. Extreme poverty, lack of security due to decades of war, and limited opportunities, have all meant that families are increasingly forcing young girls into marriage: over half of Afghan girls are married or engaged by the age of 10. Because married girls most often don't continue their education, 9 out of 10 Afghan women are illiterate.

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Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the life expectancy in Afghanistan is one of the lowest in the world: most die by the age of 44. In spite of this, a large number of women see widowhood before their death: the average age of an Afghan widow is 35, and there are 1.5 million of them, thanks to the high proportion of men who are killed in the conflict. But being a widow doesn't mean freedom. Because women very often depend on male protection, with some having severely limited rights, many widows end up on the street or as prostitutes.

"When an Afghan woman complains, she is told that she is not a good woman and that is why she is suffering. The blame is always on the woman. We're trying to change that," the Afghanistan Country Director for Women for Afghan Women told Amnesty International.

As for those who manage and are able to achieve active autonomy, the situation is still dangerous — but they don't give up.

"You can't be an active woman in Afghanistan and not feel threatened. It is part of my daily life. I never know what is going to happen next. In the last five years, many high profile Afghan women have been killed for trying to raise the profile of women or defend their human rights. I take one day at a time but try to work on issues that will have a lasting effect," Shinkai Karokhail, a member of the Afghan Parliament, told Amnesty International.

Most foreign troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, but if a security agreement ends up getting signed at that time, 10,000 more U.S. troops are likely to stay in the country for well beyond that.

Image: United Nations via Flickr