KABUL - Recently, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) office in Kudoz province reported the rescue of a young woman who had been imprisoned in her in-laws' dungeon for seven months. Fifteen-year-old Sahar Gul was forced to marry an older man who serves in the Afghan army. She was then kept in the dungeon by her husband's family and brutally tortured for months, because she refused to work as a prostitute.
Over the past ten years, the AIHRC has received more than 19,000 complaints related to violence against women. Despite making some progress in investigating the complaints and referring them to the justice system, as well as in raising public awareness about the issue, the challenges remain huge.
Since 2002, many efforts have been made to improve women's lives in Afghanistan. The country has enacted several new laws and established a fairly advanced legal framework to end discrimination against women, including a new law that criminalises any act that results in violence against women.
But laws and policies alone are not sufficient to protect women from horrific domestic abuse. Indeed, the Gul case is hardly the only well-publicised case. There was also Gulnaz, a young woman who was jailed for adultery after being raped by a relative (she was recently released after a presidential pardon, but may be forced to marry her attacker). The husband of another young woman, Aisha, cut off her nose and ears when she ran away.
Violence against women in Afghanistan persists for many reasons. First, the country has inherited a patriarchal tribal tradition that assumes women's inferiority. Women are therefore deprived of their basic rights and freedoms.
Second, there is a strong political incentive to deprive women of their rights. Radical groups receive immense support from the large share of the population that opposes women's rights. The Taliban, for example, have consistently used an anti-women policy to appeal to tribal and rural people.
Third, family pride and honor are deemed more important than a woman's individual well-being and safety. For example, if family members beat or abuse a woman, she has few options. Often, her only choice is to remain silent or risk disgracing the family. If she does report the matter to the authorities, the case will almost certainly never be properly investigated, nor the perpetrators ever prosecuted. Gul, for example, complained to the police about her abusive in-laws, but she was returned to the family when some of their influential contacts intervened.
Fourth, laws are often arbitrarily applied, and sharia (Islamic law) frequently takes precedence over civil legislation, resulting in widespread impunity for crimes of violence against women. For example, in October 2010, the Afghan Supreme Court ruled that women who run away from home can be charged with prostitution, unless they go to the police or an immediate relative's home. It is this mindset that led to Gul's victimisation.
Finally, while the Taliban lost power ten years ago, discrimination and violence against women has occurred in Afghan society for centuries. Thus, despite some progress, public and official sensitivity to violence against women is only slowly emerging.
The Afghan government must take several steps to protect women fully. Above all, perpetrators of violence against women should be prosecuted and tried under due process of law. This will require strengthening the rule of law and ending the prevailing culture of impunity.
That, in turn, requires educating the public further about human rights and women's rights through school textbooks, continuing education courses, and a vigorous media campaign. It also requires persuading representatives and policymakers to develop policies and allocate budget revenues to combat violence against women, and training police and judges to handle cases of violence against women without deferring to claims of family honour. Perhaps most importantly, non-constitutional justice systems, such as sharia, must be monitored and checked, if not prohibited altogether.
As for Sahar Gul, her case must be thoroughly investigated, and the police and judiciary must commit to bringing her torturers to justice. Furthermore, Gul's case, and others like it, should be studied in order to understand the roots of such crimes. Until Afghanistan's leaders begin to address this problem seriously, our country will continue to bear the scar of violence against women on its face.
Mohammad Musa Mahmodi is Executive Director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.