This post is part of a series in support of the United Nation’s “16 Days of Activism” campaign to end violence against women. Now through December 10, we’ll be sharing stories from women around the world as they work to eliminate violence against women internationally.
Trigger warning: This post contains mentions of rape.
According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse, which is often caused by close relatives. Domestic violence is illegal in Afghanistan, but the deep-seated cultural and religious beliefs that view women not as human beings with rights but as the property of their families makes the law difficult to enforce. In many cases the Afghan police do not interfere with or investigate the domestic violence.
In the context of violence against women in Afghanistan, rape is also common. Sometimes rape victims are killed by their own families in the name of honor. In a culture where men value honor in the tribe above all else, it is easy to see how rape brings shame to a family.
What’s Happening Now
Rape was not criminalized in Afghanistan until the Elimination of Violence Against Women law was written in 2009. Rapists of Afghan women are only now beginning to be prosecuted. The case of a 10-year-old Afghan girl who was raped by a local mullah in Kunduz province shocked the world last July when it made international news. Women for Afghan Women sheltered the girl and helped her get medical treatment and justice. Although the mullah was sentenced to 20 years in prison and the girl is back with her family, there are serious concerns that the parents may kill their daughter in the name of honor.
While the Kunduz case made headlines, there are many similar rape cases in Afghanistan that are never reported. Sometimes when a rape victim goes to police, she is arrested and accused of “zina” (an adultery crime). Some girls hide what happened because they fear for their life. Sometimes the combination of the abuse and the knowledge there will be no support from family, government or society leads the victims to end their own lives.
My uncle’s first wife was raped at age 12 by a close relative living in the same house. She was too afraid to tell anyone and when my uncle found out on their wedding night, he divorced her. With that, she lost her chance to marry a young, single and healthy man. She married several times after that but none of the marriages lasted. Some of the husbands were drug addicts and the marriages ended in divorce, or the husband died.
Once raped, the woman or girl becomes tarnished goods. Some of these women will never marry and will become a life-long financial burden on the family.
It is no wonder that the response to a rape generally focuses on the guilt of the woman, rather than the male perpetrator. The woman, who is the source of the dishonor, has nothing but terrible options. She can be killed in an honor killing, severely punished or forced to marry the rapist so as not to bring shame to the family.
This cultural ideology that women are property, devoid of rights or dignity, is the fundamental reason rape is perpetuated in Afghanistan. It is so embedded in the cultural and religious views, particularly among rural and uneducated populations, that change will not be easy to effect or maintain. However, I think change is possible through education and religious and political reforms.
What Must Be Done
Education must remain a priority, particularly in outlying provinces. When women learn about their rights, they educate all of their children and demand better laws and enforcement of the laws. Educated women are more able to break free of the cultural mandate to keep rape quiet. Men also need to be educated so they can question such cultural views.
Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani and his new government need to take a consistently hard line with abusers and rapists to show that this cultural norm is no longer acceptable under any circumstance.
The new government must create and enforce laws against people who take action against rape victims. The Afghan constitution and the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law must be signed and put in practice so rape is explicitly criminalized. Women’s organizations and women activists should be afforded some protection, both under the law and in reality so they can continue to help rape victims. Finally, honor killings can no longer be tolerated.