U.N. report says Afghan women's rights are eroding

  • Article by: ALISSA J. RUBIN , New York Times
  • Updated: December 8, 2013 - 7:16 PM

Forced marriages, using women and girls to settle debts is still common, report says.

– Despite years of intensive efforts by Afghan and international rights advocates, progress in obtaining justice for abused women in Afghanistan appears to have stalled, according to a report released Sunday by the United Nations.

The report, on the implementation of the 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law, found that although the number of official reports this year by police and prosecutors on violence against women rose by 28 percent from the previous year, actual prosecutions did not remotely keep pace, rising by just 2 percent.

At the same time, there are intensifying fears that the continuing withdrawal of international money and staff members ahead of the 2014 Western troop pullout deadline will leave women particularly vulnerable, after a decade of international attention failed to make much of a dent in an array of deeply entrenched and abusive Afghan traditions.

Evidence of backsliding

“With the drawdown in international assistance and support, there is a real risk that any advances in women’s rights will erode, and there’s already disturbing signs of that,” said Georgette Gagnon, the head of the U. N. Human Rights division here, who led the team that put together the report.

As an example, Gagnon said, the lack of ability to bring abusers to justice was likely to increase “the risk of more child marriages, more forced marriages and violence against women with impunity.”

The backsliding has already begun, in fact. Over the past year, there have been repeated efforts in parliament to reduce women’s rights.

One new restriction in particular is likely to hurt: the National Assembly prohibited the use of relatives’ testimony in criminal cases, greatly limiting the ability to prosecute domestic violence cases, as they often hinge on family members as witnesses.

There also was an effort to codify the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which was approved as a decree by President Hamid Karzai in 2009 but has not been passed by parliament. The effort last summer almost resulted in the law unraveling altogether as conservative parliament members seized the opportunity to declare many of its provisions “un-Islamic,” including the prohibition on child marriages, forced marriages and unrestricted rights to education and women’s shelters. The parliament speaker stopped the debate and sent it back to committee.

Hasima Safi, head of the Afghan Women’s Network, said her organization had just finished a study of child and forced marriages and concluded that it was directly linked to violence against women. Safi and other women’s advocates, as well as Gagnon, fear an increase in such marriages as the economy worsens and families turn more frequently to selling their daughters to settle debts and grievances.

In the narrower context of the law and the prosecution of abuse, the U.N. report found that in the past year, most cases were settled by mediation, often carried out by the police, which human rights advocates said meant women were sent back into the family circumstances in which they were abused.

Based on continuing examination of cases in 16 provinces, few prosecutors were even using the Elimination of Violence Against Women law as a basis for indictments. The law was reported to have been used in only 17 percent of cases.

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