For Afghan women, violence remains entrenched despite gains

Governments since the Taliban ouster in 2001 have struggled to make progress on preventing widespread domestic and sexual abuse.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
A 17-year-old Afghan girl arrives for an interview with The Associated Press in Kabul to discuss her escape from a lifetime of sexual abuse.

For the past year, the 17-year-old has lived in a shelter in Afghanistan's capital, hoping for a new life away from the sexual abuse that turned her family inside out.

Her father sexually abused her from when she was nine years old and let his friends to do the same. She didn't tell anyone, she said, because she didn't understand what was happening to her. But any pretense of family normality imploded when medical examinations revealed that her brother was infertile and her father was also the father of her brother's sons.

She then fled from her home village, in northern Afghanistan, and made her way to Kabul. There, she was taken in by a taxi driver and his family. But after a few days he and his friends – all heroin addicts – locked her up with three other girls and used them as sex slaves, she said.

"I came across to the same thing I was running from. Every day a new man used to come to me," the teen told The Associated Press. The AP does not identify victims of sexual abuse. The teen said she was speaking out in hopes it would prevent abuse of others.

The girl's story may be on the extremes of brutality, but rights workers say violence and abuse against women remains one of Afghanistan's most deeply entrenched problems, even as the government tries to build greater rights for women. Even measuring the extent of abuse is difficult.

In 2014, for example, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission received 2,026 reports of violence against women, up from previous years. But Hussain Mohsen, of the group's investigation department, said variations from year to year are usually just technical blips and that the problem in general is more pervasive. "The violence is so high and was high in the past as well," Mr. Mohsen told AP.

Out of all the violence reports the group receives from women, less than 10 percent concern sexual violence, a reflection of the powerful taboos against discussing it. Sexual violence "is usually kept secret. For this reason most incidents of sexual violence remain unreported," the group said in a March 8 report. The reports said violence against women "is one of the most serious human rights issues" facing the country, ranging from physical and sexual violence, "honor killings," and immolation.

Amnesty International released a report on Tuesday detailing an increase in violence and abuse directed at women rights activists. They face threats, violence, sexual assaults, and killing as they go about their work, and yet their complaints are consistently ignored by Afghan authorities despite legal protections, it said. "The lack of protection is simply shocking," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty's secretary general.

In Afghanistan's deeply conservative society, girls and women are often regarded as inferior to men and are forced to live within narrow social strictures. Many do not leave their homes are not permitted to work and are married off young to earn money for their families. Many are born, live and die as virtual prisoners, first of their fathers and then their husbands. The closed atmosphere gives broad license for abuses of women — almost always with impunity.

During the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban, woman were banned from school or work or from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative — and while those rules have been lifted since their fall, the overwhelming social restrictions remain.

Governments since the Taliban ouster have struggled to make progress.

President Ashraf Ghani made protection and expansion of women's rights a platform of his election campaign in 2014 and has helped forge a public profile for his wife, Rula, as first lady, something not seen in recent Afghan history. She has spoken out publicly, both at home and abroad, on behalf of women's rights. But promises to include women in government have yet to be fulfilled in the numbers the president originally pledged, leading to doubts both about his sincerity and his ability to rally political support for the cause.

New laws have been passed, but ensuring they are applied is a tougher prospect, and there remains resistance in parliament to the laws protecting women from violence.

Still, experts and activists say efforts to change attitudes ingrained over centuries are showing results.

"Afghan women have made a huge amount of progress since 2001. Millions of women have sent their daughters to school, studied themselves, gone out to work, participated in elections, or even just started leaving the house freely – none of which they could do under the Taliban," said Heather Barr, senior researcher on women's rights in Asia.

Still, she said, activists for women's rights have been killed, violence against women goes largely unpunished, and half of girls still don't go to school.

Mohsen, of the AIHRC, said that at least more women now know more about their rights. "There were so many awareness programs by different government and non-government organizations, which were so effective," he said.

The case of the 17-year-old at the Kabul shelter showed the incremental advances and how far there is to go. Neither her father nor the taxi driver were arrested over the reported abuse – a sign of the near complete impunity for offenders.

The teen is one of the lucky ones in that she found shelter from her abuses. Shelters for women are new, opening in the past decade, and remain few – with likely only around a dozen nationwide. Their creation remains stigmatized, with religious conservatives regularly describing them as brothels. Few women who run away from abusers find shelter. If they are found by police, they can end up in prison – ostensibly for their own protection – or often are sent home under arrangements by local arbiters intent on maintaining the status quo.

When she was trapped in the taxi driver's Kabul house, the teen managed to call a friend in her home town, who then helped her find a place in the shelter.

Now, she said, "I am more relaxed and I am not forced to do what I don't want to do anymore, and secondly here I can continue my studies, all opportunities are here and I can move on with my studies."

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