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AFGHANISTAN: Women, Socially Bound and Officially Neglected

Zarghona Salihi and Habiburahman Ibrahimi - Pajhwok Afghan News*

KABUL, Mar 27 2006 (IPS) - Every 30 minutes, an Afghan woman dies from delivery-related complications. Girls have minimal access to education in many parts of the country and forced marriages are widespread, say rights watchdogs.

Women comprise half the population of Afghanistan, but they continued to suffer from official neglect and primitive social restrictions in 2005, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has reported.

The commission said it has documented 154 cases of self-immolation by women in the western zone during the year, while in the southern Helmand province, as many as 144 forced marriages and 25 money-for-opium marriages were reported.

The Afghanistan government’s attempts to curb the cultivation of opium have had an unexpected fallout on women. Desperate farmers, with their poppy fields razed by the government, have been forced to turn to a traditional practice in which a family pays off its debts by handing over a daughter to a relative of the creditor.

Usually, there is a marriage ceremony for the sake of propriety, but the woman is treated as property.

Another Afghan practice called ‘baad’ has claimed a seven-year-old victim. The girl, whose father had sexually abused a 10-year-old, was given in marriage to the victim’s brother. She was used as a slave and sexually abused for two years before she was returned to her family, last year.

Hangama Anwari, a member of the AIHRC, said the victims could not expect any justice from the judicial system. According to her, the male-dominated courts were biased against women and children.

Most investigations by the authorities, into complaints of violent attacks on women, are neither routine nor systematic, and few result in prosecutions, the rights watchdog Amnesty International stated in its 2005 report on Afghanistan.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai had ordered the release of hundreds of women and children held in prisons for minor offences.

There has been a spurt in cases of attempted suicides and self-immolation by women with hundreds of cases of attempted suicide being reported by the police.

In mid-January, an 18-year-old burnt herself to death in Omri district. While officials did not have the exact details, crime branch chief Wakil Kamyab said he suspected violence and family feud behind the incident.

There are reported increases in forced marriages and some women have killed themselves to escape, including by self-immolation. The chief of the Ghazni women affairs department admitted to Pajhwok Afghan News that ”female self-immolation is unprecedented in the province.”

“These girls are burning themselves to death because they have no other option in life to escape violence,” observed the special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission for Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences, Yakin Erturk, commenting on the cases of self-immolation in the town of Herat, last year.

“‘They are committing suicide in order to escape a life full of violence, not only from their husbands or fathers, but sometimes even by mothers-in-law, surprisingly. So being women does not free one from exercising violence unfortunately,” she added.

Ahmad Fahim Hakim, the deputy chairman of the AIHRC, has urged the government to set up offices for registering marriages and divorces and to create family courts to tackle the alarming issue of violence against women.

Even educated women are not safe within the four walls of their homes. In November 2005, poet Nadia Anjuman, 25, well-known in literary circles in Afghanistan and neighbouring Iran, died after being severely beaten by her husband in western Herat town. Provincial police chief Nisar Ahmad Paikar confirmed that her husband has been arrested for the murder.

A 29-year-old, named only as Amina, was dragged out of her parent’s house in Urgu District, Badakhan province by her husband and local officials before being publicly stoned to death. The man accused of committing adultery with her is alleged to have been whipped a 100 times and freed.

Violence against women is widely accepted by the community and inadequately addressed by the government or judiciary. Instead, ”societal codes, invoked in the name of tradition and religion, are used as justification to deny women the ability to enjoy their fundamental rights”, Amnesty has said.

In April last year, authorities in northern Baghlan province, found the bodies of three women who had been sexually assaulted and dumped with a warning note to women to say at home. One of them worked with an aid agency.

“‘We stress that the Afghan authorities have a duty to protect women from violence, committed not only by agents of the state but also by private individuals and groups. Reform of the criminal justice system is integral to the protection of all Afghan women and it is the responsibility of the state to provide legal safeguards,” Amnesty has urged in the 2005 report.

(*Released under arrangement with Pajhwok Afghan News)

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