Disturbing Trends Toward Violence Against Women in Afghanistan

Jan 14, 2010

By Katherine Hubbard

An article by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recently published in the Daily Beast highlights the issue of violence against women in Afghanistan.  The article tells the story of a young woman named Nadia (name changed), who had been married off at the age of thirteen in order to resolve a dispute between her uncle and another local family.  From the beginning, she was abused and beaten by her husband and his relatives.  When she tried to run away she was turned in to the police by her neighbors and returned to her in-laws.  As punishment for her attempted escape, her in-laws cut off both of her ears and most of her nose.  She was treated for her injuries at the U.S. military clinic at Camp Ripley and she is now living in a women’s shelter where she awaits a visa that will take her to the United States to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Incidents like this are all too common in Afghanistan where violence against women is endemic.  A report released last year by the United Nations entitled Silence is Violence shows a “growing trend” of violence and threats against women as well as rape and sexual violence.  The report also discusses the numerous attacks on girls’ schools and female students, including gas and acid attacks.  Many incidents of violence and rape go unreported, and when they are reported, they are rarely a priority for the police.

A human right's report recently created by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department shows Afghan women increasingly turning to suicide to escape the abuse they suffer daily.  Many of the women who commit suicide are in their early twenties.  A British report, cited in the Foreign Affairs report, stated that 87% of Afghans claim to have at one point been a victim of violence.  The report added that 60% of marriages are forced and 57% of marriages involve girls under the age of 16.  Like Nadia, some girls try to escape, but there are few places for them to go once they have run away.  Some women are only able to find shelter in prison.

Since the fall of the Taliban, there have been some advances towards the protection of women’s rights such as the establishment of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, and the guarantee of equal rights for men and women in the new constitution.   Yet despite the Afghan government’s pledges to protect women’s rights, these words have yet to be matched by any concrete actions.  Meanwhile, the international community has been hesitant to push the issue due to fear of upsetting the fragile coalition government.  Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has stressed that it is the Afghan government’s responsibility to take a stand against violence against women by educating the population and demonstrating an active commitment to safeguarding the rights of women.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting small and medium-sized businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. She is currently working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.

Flickr photo by DFID used under a creative commons license.