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Silence is Violence: End the abuse of women in Afghanistan

Press release and report by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

by sacw.net, 11 July 2009

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Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

United Nations

Press Release

- VIOLENCE AGAINST AFGHAN WOMEN, INCLUDING RAPE, WIDESPREAD AND UNPUNISHED, SAYS UNITED NATIONS

8 July 2009

A new United Nations report on women in Afghanistan, issued today, describes the extensive and increasing level of violence directed at women taking part in public life, as well as the "widespread occurrence" of rape against a backdrop of institutional failure and impunity.

The 32-page report, issued jointly by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), notes that "violence, in the public and private spheres, is an everyday occurrence in the lives of a huge proportion of Afghan women."

"This report paints a detailed and deeply disturbing picture of the situation facing many Afghan women today", said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. "The limited space that opened up for Afghan women following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 is under sustained attack, not just by the Taliban themselves, but by deeply engrained cultural practices and customs, and – despite a number of significant advances in terms of the creation of new legislation and institutions — by a chronic failure at all levels of government to advance the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan."

While touching on the full range of violence affected Afghan women – including so-called "honour" killings, the exchange of women and girls as a form of dispute-resolution (often in connection with land or property issues), trafficking and abduction, early and forced marriages and domestic violence – the report focuses on two principal issues: the "growing trend" of violence and threats against women in public life, and rape and sexual violence.

Women participating in virtually all sectors of public life, including "parliamentarians, provincial council members, civil servants, journalists, women working for international organizations ... have been targeted by anti-government elements, by local traditional and religious power-holders, by their own families and communities, and in some instances by government authorities", the report says, citing a number of individual examples of targeted killings of professional women, as well as a litany of discrimination, threats, intimidation and harassment aimed at prominent or working women and their families.

While noting that the new Afghan Constitution includes a 25 per cent quota for female members of parliament – one of the highest such quotas in the world – the report also notes that "a number of female Members of Parliament have already indicated that due to the prevailing security situation and death threats they repeatedly receive, they will not be contesting the next National Assembly elections in 2010."

It also details numerous attacks on girls’ schools, and on girl pupils – including gas and acid attacks – by "anti-government elements".

"Developments such as these threaten to have a devastating long-term impact on the involvement of women in Afghan society", Ms. Pillay said. "There have been some encouraging incremental advances in the area of girls’ education in recent years, and it is extremely important to have women participating in the country’s political arena, but the Taliban and other conservative forces seem determined to take the country back to the stone age."

The segment of the report dealing with sexual violence paints an extremely bleak picture of a society where rape is both widespread and taboo, and where the victims are more likely to be punished than the perpetrators.

Most information on sexual violence and rape, the report says, is "anecdotal, incomplete and at times unreliable. There is a lack of official primary and comprehensive data on rape." However, the report’s researchers note that preliminary data "suggests that rape is a widespread occurrence in all parts of Afghanistan and in all communities, and all social groups."

One of the main problems is a culture of impunity: "Only in a few isolated cases have public institutions taken appropriate action", the report says. "In many instances, victims seeking help and justice are further victimized… Government action to address rape is woefully inadequate." Moreover, police and judicial officials are often not aware or convinced that rape is a serious criminal offence, the report says, and "investigating a rape case is rarely a priority."

It also notes there is no explicit provision in the 1976 Afghan Penal Code criminalizing rape, and recommends that this be rectified. A survey of convicted rapists in one Afghan prison indicated that they did not know that rape was a criminal offence, and suggested they might have acted differently had they known they risked imprisonment.

Unaccompanied women and those who have previously been subjected to sexual violence are at greater risk, as are widows, divorced women, and women whose husbands are out of the country.

"Rapists include individuals who are entrusted as guardians or as caretakers of children and women, such as staff of prisons, juvenile rehabilitation centres, police stations or orphanages", the report says. "Some detention facilities’ officials are said to have forced female detainees into prostitution or to conduct sexual acts in exchange for food and other items. Others reported that perpetrators are linked to local power-holders, such as Government or elected officials, powerful commanders, members of illegal armed groups and criminal gangs. It is understood that the power and influence of these local power-holders shield perpetrators from prosecution."

Detailing how cultural norms often exacerbate the problem, the report points out that rape is sometimes used "to ’dishonour’ another family, tribe or clan, to obtain revenge for a previous crime. Men thus enter into a cycle of revenge, based on the sexual abuse of women."

Echoing the report’s conclusions, the High Commissioner said "the Government has a duty to eradicate these harmful practices, by making them illegal, educating its population and demonstrating leadership and commitment to safeguard the rights of all Afghan women and girls. The silence surrounding the widely known problem of violence against the girls and women of Afghanistan must be broken."


Silence is Violence

(Source)

“The progress of a society or a country cannot be measured in terms of its GDP alone. It must be measured in terms of its human development index in which empowerment of women must become the most important yardstick of progress and development.” Shabana Azmi, Indian actress, former parliamentarian and activist made these comments at the launch of a new UN report which paints a devastating picture of the status of women in Afghanistan.

Bollywood actress Shabana Azmi speaks out for the rights of Afghanistan’s women - Fardin Waezi (UNAMA) Azmi is widely respected, not only as an actress but also as an activist who has campaigned for many years against various forms of injustice: she has urged compassion for victims of AIDS, spoken out against religious extremism and advocated for the rights of women. Bollywood movies are very popular in Afghanistan and Azmi’s arrival in Kabul, to help launch a report on a subject close to her heart, caused quite a stir in a country where movie stars are much admired, but rarely seen.

The UN report, issued jointly by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, details increasing violence against women who are active in public life and the widespread incidence of rape and sexual violence throughout the country.

Women participating in virtually all sectors of public life, including “parliamentarians, provincial council members, civil servants, journalists, women working for international organizations… have been targeted by anti-government elements, by local traditional and religious power-holders, by their own families and communities, and in some instances by government authorities,” the report says.

Launching the report in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the Afghan Government to demonstrate leadership by banning harmful practices, educating its population and accepting it has a duty to safeguard the rights of women and girls. “The limited space that opened up for Afghan women following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001 is under sustained attack… by a chronic failure at all levels of government to advance the protection of women’s rights in Afghanistan,” she says.

Drawing on her own experiences, Shabana Azmi spoke of democracy as being a crucial factor in the empowerment of women. “Our participation in all aspects of political life enables us to bring attention to issues that concern us, be involved in the processes that affect us and challenge laws and policies that restrict us.”

But participation is conditional on security and the report details widespread violence against women who have stepped into the public arena and the growing reluctance of those who remain there to continue with their activities as long as they remain unsupported and unprotected.

“Developments such as these threaten to have a devastating long-term impact on the involvement of women in Afghan society,” says High Commissioner Pillay. “There have been some encouraging incremental advances in the area of girls’ education in recent years, and it is extremely important to have women participating in the country’s political arena, but the Taliban and other conservative forces seem determined to take the country back to the stone age.”

UN Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide warned that violence against women in Afghanistan was not being faced up to within the community and said this was holding Afghanistan back. “The problem isn’t that violence against women is being condoned. It’s not,” said Eide. “The problem is that violence against women is not being challenged or condemned. And that has implications both for countless individual victims and for the country’s future development.”

Azmi called on women across Asia to speak out in support of the women of Afghanistan. “When discrimination against women is endorsed by society or the state, then we all become partners in crime. We cannot remain silent, we must not remain silent.”

Preliminary data in the report suggests that rape in Afghanistan is a widespread occurrence. The report makes it clear this is unlikely to change while local customs make it more probable the victim will be punished than the perpetrator. Additionally, the Afghan Penal Code has no provision explicitly criminalising rape.

Azmi saluted the women activists who are campaigning for legal reforms and championing the rights of victims but she said the mindset needed to change so that women were no longer treated as second class citizens.

She concluded her speech with a verse from the Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Bol ke lab azaad hain tere
- Bol Zabaan ab tak teri hain
- Bol yeh sutwan jism hai tera
- Bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai
- Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak ….

Speak: your lips are free
- Speak: your tongue is still yours
- Speak: this lissome body is yours
- Speak: this life is yours
- Speak: so that the truth can prevail ….

10 July 2009

Silence is Violence: End the abuse of women in Afghanistan
by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 8 July 2009
(Full text of the Report in PDF)

P.S.

© OHCHR 2009