In Afghanistan, a girl's killing stands out – for police response

Police have arrested suspects in the recent beheading of a girl, but a new report released today by the UN finds that violent acts against women remain under reported and often ignored.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Afghan father Mohamad Rahim and his son Mohamad Noor cry while holding the sandals of their 14-year-old daughter/sister Geysina, who was beheaded Nov. 26 by a neighbor in a dispute over a rejected marriage proposal in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, on December 6. Violence against women and girls continues in Afghanistan, despite a 2009 law criminalizing abuse.

The poor Afghan family never took a photograph of their 14-year-old daughter, Geysina, before her life was cut short.

All the mementos of their devoted daughter fit in a single sack, carried from their village in northern Afghanistan – the totems of the latest grisly episode in a surge of killings of young women and girls in Kunduz Province. There's a pair of worn sandals repaired with loops of thick thread, which bring tears to the eyes of Geysina's father when he holds them. And there is a ring made of cheap metal – no more than costume jewelry for children – inset with a small oval of lime-green plastic.

Geysina was wearing the ring the morning in late November when she was beheaded 150 yards from home while fetching water.

"She was too young for gold," explains Geysina's father Mohamad Rahim, whose threadbare sleeves and calloused hands attest to a life spent farming. He tips his head and grey silk turban at the memories of Geysina, one of nine children whose walk, smile, and laugh set her apart. "We were all lying on the ground, crying and screaming – there is nothing like this [killing of innocents] in Islam." 

Her family and local police blame a neighbor, a butcher living next door, who they say threatened Geysina's life repeatedly for not accepting several proposals for marriage to the butcher's brother – the latest rejection made just the night before the killing.

Geysina lived and died in a hard country for women, a point highlighted again by a United Nations report released today. Despite a landmark 2009 law called the "Elimination of Violence Against Women," crimes against women remain under reported and largely not investigated. 

The reasons, the report states, include “cultural restraints, social norms and taboos, customary practices and religious beliefs, discrimination against women that leads to wider acceptance of violence against them … and, at times threat to life.”

In 16 provinces, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted the discrepancy between the "very low" figure of 470 officially reported incidents of violence in the past year and the 4,010 recorded by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

UNAMA's human rights director, Georgette Gagnon, called on Afghan authorities to "take further steps to ensure that police and prosecutors register and investigate all reports of violence against women."

Arrests in Geysina's case

In Geysina's case, the police have taken some action. 

Police say the butcher, Mohamad Sadiq, and a relative and suspected accomplice, are now behind bars. They deny the murder, but were caught fleeing the scene, says Kunduz police spokesman Said Sarwar Husaini. Evidence includes bloody clothes in their possession, and the motive was well-known locally to all, due to a string of threats.

"I am sure the court will punish them," says Mr. Husaini, noting likely sentences of 20 years or life in prison. Such sentences are an increasingly common result, according to the UNAMA report. Of the 470 referred to a judicial process, some 163 saw indictments filed and 100 of those ended in convictions using the 2009 law.

"Women are always the victims, so we pursue these cases very seriously," says Husaini. "Women have a weak status in society, so we are very careful about women's cases and investigate deeply because they can't protect themselves."

Violence spikes in Kunduz

But violence against women is not showing signs of abating in Afghanistan. The acting head of women’s affairs in Laghman Province in northeast Afghanistan, Najia Sediqi, was assassinated yesterday. Her predecessor was killed last July for defending a girl who married for love, instead of an arranged marriage to an older man.

And in Kunduz, Geysina was only one among a dozen young women and girls recorded killed in the last nine months alone, compared to just one in the previous year. Police statistics show that those murders account for more than one-quarter of the 42 killings registered across the province in that period. 

Residents and police in Kunduz list a host of reasons: lack of education, poverty, increased militia activity, traditional practices of forced and early marriage – and growing resistance to those practices – and even democracy, along with mental health problems stemming from decades of conflict.

"There are many reasons behind it," says Nadira Geyah, the head of the Kunduz office of the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs. An Afghan flag sits on her desk, beside a group of cloth flowers in well-appointed offices. The UNAMA report noted the “crucial role” of such provincial women's affairs offices.

Most women are killed at the hands of illegal militias, which have taken root in Kunduz the last two years, says Ms. Geyah. But a tradition of forced marriages also "create problems in the family and are used as reasons to kill."

'A generation of war'

On top of that, decades of war – of Soviet occupation in the 1980s, civil war in the 1990s, and finally since 2001 American and NATO intervention – has left its mark.

"This is a generation of war, so people have mental problems and are very quick to anger and to act," says Geyah.

Yet another reason is the process of spreading the news of women's rights across the country, as the Ministry of Women's Affairs does. In Kunduz, Geyah's office uses sympathetic religious scholars to spread the message, with the help of the media. Key topics are women's rights according to Islam, under international human rights law, and Afghan prohibitions on violence against women.

"When a woman in a rural area hears that, she stands up to her family, and instead of going to a magistrate [with a problem], they may prefer to kill [the woman]," says Geyah.

Not all scholars are on board, and their preaching has also led to the killing of women. "It's a big challenge and we need more time. We should struggle against that," she adds.

Even more fundamentally, education is key. Families often prefer that their children work instead of go to school, "so what kind of behavior can we expect of them?" asks Geyah.

Geysina is a case in point: None of the nine children in the family went to school. “She was like a house girl, busy at home, cooking with her mother or bringing us lunch in the fields,” says the murdered girl’s father, Mr. Rahim. “She was not a school girl.”

Reasons for optimism

Despite the surge in killings, Geyah is optimistic about changes in coming years.

"In the past, there were a small number of girls in school, and that number is increasing," says Geyah. "And before, there were no women in Kunduz government offices; now we have many examples."

And on the ground in Kunduz, the police say they are making progress. They have stepped up arrests in the past two years, as their own capacity and numbers have grown. In the last half-year Kunduz police have investigated 500 cases, 56 of them related to murders, says Husaini. On his desk is a calendar with a photograph of a crop of uniformed women police recruits.

The death toll will drop, says Husaini, as police numbers grow, and if magistrates rule consistently: "If they give appropriate punishment, it will make a difference."

Yet those future changes, if they come, were too late for Geysina and her mourning family.

"When you would fight with her, she would come back and make peace – she was very kind," says her brother, Mohamad Noor. "These days we were getting ready for a wedding party."

"She even asked for new clothes!" says father Rahim, laughing, adding that he vetoed as inappropriate her request for a short-sleeved outfit.

The shock of her loss to this family is something Geysina's killers will never understand, he says. "Those who did this don't know anything about humanity or Islam."

* Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter @peterson__scott

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