Following a spate of particularly brutal murders, Afghanistan's minister for women has said attacks on women are becoming increasingly violent.

Last month, two men were arrested in the northern Kunduz province and charged with beheading a 14-year-old girl who had apparently turned down a marriage proposal from one of them. In October, a 25-year-old woman in the western Herat province was beheaded, soon after a 30-year-old woman in the same province had been mutilated and murdered.

Speaking on Nov. 25 at an event to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Afghan Women's Affairs Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar said crimes of "extreme or brutal violence" against women had been occurring with greater frequency in recent months.

Ghazanfar said that 3,600 cases of violence against women had been recorded between April and July of this year, a decline, she said, in the number of attacks recorded during the comparable period the previous year.

"We have recorded some very tragic cases this year, though the numbers are lower than last year," she said. "We are concerned."

But agencies dispute that the overall numbers are declining. Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, looking at a slightly different time period, says it recorded 4,000 incidents between April and October of 2012, 1,000 more than in the like period the previous year. Whatever the true figure, most officials agree that most of the violence against women stems from a perceived violation of a family's honor.

The fate of Kamela, a young woman from the eastern Nangarhar province, is a case in point.

When she was 14, her father forced her to marry a 35-year-old. Her husband discovered that the girl had previously been sexually abused by her cousin. Beating and kicking his new bride until she collapsed, he returned Kamela to her father, declaring that she was immoral.

Now it was her father's turn to feel that his "honor" had been impugned. He, too, brutally beat his daughter and forced her to live with the livestock. He eventually collected $3,000 from a 78-year-old who agreed to marry the girl.

"People are usually aggrieved with other people, but I am aggrieved at God," Kamela says today. "It would have been better if he hadn't created me in the first place if I was fated to live with so much suffering. Is there anything other than death that can help me?"

The Elimination of Violence against Women Law, passed in 2009, was intended to protect women like in Kamela. Among other things, it prohibits assault, rape, marriages that involve coercion of minors and the sale of women as property.

But Ghazanfar concedes that the law is rarely enforced.

"There's a long way to go to implement the law," she said.

Qodsia Niazi, who heads the prosecution service department that deals with violence against women, says her department is making strides in prosecuting crimes against women.

"We have dealt with 1,320 cases of violence against women since last year (ending March 2012), mostly concerning assault, harassment, coercion to prostitution, sexual abuse and mutilation," she said.

But others question whether attitudes have changed over the past several years.

"Has anyone who murdered a woman ever been executed?" asked Samira, a university student in Kabul. "That makes it obvious that the government has no intention of protecting women's rights. Nor can these so-called institutions do anything, either.

"For the whole of a decade, the so-called women's rights defense institutions have pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars, particularly the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Women's rights have become lucrative," she said, "Yet rights for women have not been assured, and the violence has gone up rather than down. All these conferences and slogans are purely symbolic. Everyone has started up an NGO in the name of women and is making money."

Further complicating this issue is the mistaken belief by many Afghans that violence against women is sanctioned by the Quran and one of the tenants of Islam.

Dai-ul-Haq Abed, Deputy Minister of Hajja and Religious Affairs, says his agency is working to dispel such perceptions, with new departments focusing on gender issues and on Islamic teachings about women's rights. In addition, he said, mosque prayer leaders were being asked to devote part of their weekly sermons to women's rights and the evils of violence against them.

For now, however, that message does not appear to be getting across.


Mina Habib is a reporter in Afghanistan who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict.. This essay was distributed by MCT Information Services.