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The Women in Afghanistan: In the News for the Wrong Reasons

Posted: 23/09/2013 00:00

Imagine you woke up tomorrow and heard on the news that a prominent woman MP here in Britain had been kidnapped along with her two daughters. It would be utterly shocking.

Now imagine it's a few weeks later and you hear that another female parliamentarian, a member of the House of Lords for example, has narrowly escaped an attack in which her daughter was killed. Then you see that a senior female police officer has been murdered, and then another. And then you hear that a well-known female writer has been shot dead outside her home.

If all this happened in the UK - five high-profile women attacked or murdered within the space of six or seven weeks - how would we react? It's so extreme that it's difficult to imagine.

But this is exactly what's happened in Afghanistan this summer. The two parliamentarians who were attacked - Fariba Kakar and Rooh Gul - both fortunately survived, but Ms Gul's eight-year-old daughter was killed. (Fariba Kakar, who was abducted by the Taliban in August was recently released unharmed, reportedly in exchange for several Taliban prisoners). Meanwhile, Helmand province's senior woman police officer Lieutenant Negar was shot dead earlier this week, just like her predecessor Islam Bibi who was gunned down on her way to work in July. Meanwhile, less than a fortnight earlier the acclaimed Indian diarist Sushmita Banerjee was dragged out of her home by gunmen in Afghanistan's Paktika province and shot 15 times.

These are high-profile women and their stories have made news. But they represent just the tip of a vast iceberg of violence against women in Afghanistan. According to one study, 87% of Afghan women have experienced violence of at least one form (many suffering multiple types). An NGO report last year found that almost half the women in Afghanistan's prisons and nearly all the girls in its juvenile detention centres were there because they'd fled a forced marriage or domestic violence. The miserable reality for many Afghan women and girls is that they are routinely targeted by their husbands or other relatives. If they're more prominent individuals, they're also likely targets for the armed groups, including the Taliban.

Perpetrators of violence against women rarely face justice in Afghanistan. When I visited last year I met some women survivors of violence living in one of the country's few shelters. Even the idea that their attackers might be properly punished seemed a remote reality for these women. Many, it is true, do not report violence (as is the case in Britain), while some of those that do are themselves prosecuted.

In the case of Sushmita Banerjee's murder, the authorities have already made arrests but this is highly unusual. None of the perpetrators in the other cases I've mentioned here have been brought to justice. Even in the well-known case of Sahar Gul - the 12-year-old girl tortured by the family she was forced to marry into - the authorities have failed. Her husband has never been apprehended and three members of her in-law family have been released from prison after serving little more than a year of their 10-year sentences.

This depressing situation is exacerbated by a lack of emergency protection centres or shelters in Afghanistan. Fortunately, in Sahar's case, she's now being supported by a shelter run by an Afghan women's rights organisation. But there are less than 20 shelters across the whole of Afghanistan and those that do exist are chronically underfunded and overcrowded. And the brave women who run the shelters are often targeted themselves because of their work.

Back in March, ahead of International Women's Day, the International Development Secretary Justine Greening announced that tackling endemic violence against women in Afghanistan would be a strategic priority for the UK's work in the country from 2014 onwards. It won't be easy, but our ministers appear to understand that a brighter future for Afghanistan is likely to hinge on ensuring there's a real improvement in women's lives. As the weekly news bulletins show, the scale of the challenge is huge. The UK's commitment needs to match that.

 

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