It is hard sometimes to describe the enormous efforts taken by the Afghan political elite and conservative lawmakers to roll back hard won progress on women’s rights in Afghanistan. Here we have yet another frightening example: a new law, passed by both houses of the Afghan parliament and waiting for President Hamid Karzai’s ratification, would prohibit the questioning of relatives of an accused perpetrator of a crime, effectively eliminating victim testimony in cases of domestic violence.
In article 26 of the proposed change in the criminal prosecution code, those prohibited from testifying would include: husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and descendants of those relatives up to the second generation. Doctors and psychiatrists would also be banned from giving evidence.
This proposed law is particularly troubling in a country where violence against women is endemic and, most commonly, is at the hands of a relative. In a 2008 study, Global Rights found that 87% of Afghan women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime; 62% experience multiple forms of violence, including forced marriage and sexual violence.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW) can attest to these findings. Over 90% of the nearly 10,000 women and girls we have served since 2007 have been victims of domestic violence. Our clients have been raped, sold, beaten, starved and mutilated – primarily at the hands of a family member, or in some cases, multiple family members.
Should Karzai sign this law into effect, justice for these women would be virtually impossible. Not only would they be barred from testifying against family members who committed crimes against them, any family member who witnessed the crime would be barred as well.
Under the proposals, WAW clients, such as 15-year-old Sahar Gul who was kept in a basement and tortured by her in-laws, would have been robbed, not only of justice, but of the opportunity to reclaim her power and testify against her tormentors. Furthermore, the doctors who treated her bloodied, malnourished, and burned body would also be barred from testifying. Sahar Gul’s in-laws are serving a five-year prison sentence for torturing her. Had the new measure been law in 2012, her in-laws would likely be free to torture and abuse more women.
Other clients, such as 16-year-old Naziba who was raped by her father, would be left with no other option but to live with the abuse. At Naziba’s rape trial, her mother and uncles courageously testified against her father, and he is now serving a 12-year prison sentence. If Naziba’s relatives had been barred from testifying on her behalf, Naziba’s father might still be raping her today.
The timing of this proposed change to the law is important: a recent report by UN Women found that reported cases of violence against women was up 28% in the past year. This finding is significant because it illustrates that Afghan women are beginning to understand their rights and demand access to them.
Since 2007, our organisation has worked hard to build coalitions with local police departments, government ministries and court officials. As a result of our advocacy, these agencies are referring more and more victims to our services, instead of sending them back home or imprisoning them for running away. In some provinces, such as Kabul, the police are our biggest ally – they refer more women than any other agency. This gives us hope, illustrating that there has been a shift in attitude and perception about violence against women, not only among Afghan women, but at an institutional level as well.
However, should Karzai ratify this law, I fear that women would stop coming forward because prosecutions would be nearly impossible to secure. As an organisation that has been working tirelessly to obtain justice for women and girls who have suffered so much and so needlessly, our hands would be tied. There would be little we could do.
We, along with other human rights activists, refuse to stand back and allow this to happen. The stakes are too high and the consequences too horrific to imagine.