Women's Rights in Afghanistan Threatened With New Domestic Violence Law

Many gains for women in Afghanistan — including leaps in education access, political representation, and job creation — are currently in danger of reversal, according to women's rights experts. Buried in a bill updating Afghanistan's criminal procedure code is a provision that would prohibit relatives of an accused person from testifying against them. That means if a woman is beaten by her husband and a relative witnesses the violence, the relative cannot testify in court against the man. Even though the bill passed in Afghanistan's parliament, it awaits signature by President Hamid Karzai to go into effect as law within weeks.

Since many Afghan women only interact with family members, the law would essentially ban anyone from testifying against a male relative. The bill would also make it possible for men to force their daughters into early marriage and essentially give men a free pass to conduct "honor killings" against women without fear of retribution. Children, doctors, and defense lawyers for the accused are also covered under the ban.

"It's a very indirect way of saying that you can do whatever you want to the women in your family. It's essentially giving free rein to people as they'll never have to worry about prosecution," photographer Lynsey Addario, who has documented Afghan women for 14 years, told National Geographic.

Chrissy Hart, policy and government affairs manager for Women Thrive Worldwide, says that the bill is a very real threat to Afghan women. As foreign troops continue to pull out of active duty in Afghanistan by the end of the year, Karzai is under pressure from conservative factions — including the Taliban — to sign the law.

“Proposals of this type have been made before, but with the U.S. drawdown and diminishing international engagement and interest in Afghanistan, there’s a greater risk that these changes will go forward — and I think the U.S. government has a real role in ensuring that that doesn’t happen,” Hart tells Bustle.

During the past year, Karzai has been the face of a parliament that is increasingly conservative, and it seems like the gains made by women are under attack from many lawmakers in the country. In the last year alone, Afghan authorities wanted to repeal the requirement that 25 percent of council seats must be by occupied by women, blocked a law addressing violence against women, and even threw around a proposal to bring back stoning for adultery cases.

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Hart says the situation in the country is particularly tenuous because of the upcoming elections in April. The 11 presidential candidates are "warlords and fundamentalists who share the Taliban’s view that women should never be allowed out of their homes," according to the New York Times.

These extreme measures overshadow many of the gains women have made during the past decade or so. During the Taliban's heyday 12 years ago, there were fewer than 900,000 boys and nearly no girls in school. Now, 40 percent of the 8.3 million students in Afghanistan are girls. Maternal health in Afghanistan has vastly improved, and women are making slow but steady gains as business owners. Even though policewomen have been targets for violence, Afghanistan hired its first female police chief a few weeks ago.

The 2009 passage of the Elimination of Violence Against Women act signaled a major overhaul in Afghan policy, but enforcing it seems to be an issue in the past year. While forced marriage, domestic violence, and rape reports increased by 28 percent, EVAW was used to indict perpetrators in only two percent of cases.

Now, that 2009 law is in danger of essentially being nullified.

So what else can the U.S. do to prevent the bill from going into effect? The passage of the International Violence Against Women Act is key, Hart says. The act, which was introduced in the House in November, puts women's rights at the forefront of foreign aid and activity. It's expected to be sent to the senate in the coming weeks.

“It impacts every element of U.S. engagement abroad, from our diplomatic activities in places like Afghanistan to how we deliver U.S. foreign assistance in humanitarian crises and for general development activities," Hart says. "Having that law in U.S. Congress will send a strong message that the U.S. takes this issue seriously around the world.”

Image: Getty Images