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Environment

Afghan women still oppressed and abused, UN report says

A new report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has found that the lives of Afghan women have improved little since the fall of the Taliban. But the West seems unmoved.

Afghan girls

Afghan girls are often given away to settle disputes

Despite changes in Afghan law and a constitution designed to protect women's rights, violence and abuse of women continue to be a serious problem in the country, and the government is not doing enough to prevent it.

That is the conclusion of a new report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The most common forms of abuse include forced and child marriage, honor killings and giving away girls to settle disputes under the tradition of baad.

Afghan women at a gathering

The report says violence against Afghan women is still widespread

"The report describes the prevalence of these practices," Georgette Gagnon, UNAMA's director of human rights, said at a press conference. "It looks at the consequences these practices have on the lives of Afghan women and girls and the community as a whole and it also looks at the efforts of the Afghan government to address violence against women."

One of these efforts, the 2009 Law of Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), came under particular scrutiny. The law, which Gagnon described as "a huge gain of legal protection of women's rights," criminalizes buying and selling women for marriage, forcing a woman to marry without her consent, forcing girls to marry when they are underage, and forcing girls and women to commit self-immolation - when they set themselves on fire.

Ignorance and lack of enforcement

But according to the report, the new law is not being enforced in many parts of the country, and is often not even known. Bele Grau, program manager for Afghanistan at the women's rights organisation medica mondiale agreed with this assessment. "On the theoretical and legal level the situation is getting better – but in practice it is often not implemented," she told Deutsche Welle. "This law has been in force for a year, but a lot of judges don't even know it, and if they do, they don't enforce it."

The UN women's organization UNIFEM says that around 87 percent of Afghan women suffer from domestic violence, and that half of all girls are married under the age of 15.

On top of this, Grau says that many of the rights that women have won are repealed by new laws. She cites one recent regulation that bans women who have run away from an abusive home from seeking refuge with strangers. This in practice leaves many women only the unrealistic option of going to relatives. Many women are also still imprisoned for running away, in contravention of the EVAW law.

Guido Westerwelle

Westerwelle suggested democracy cannot be imposed on Afghanistan

The report found that much of the abuse is founded in Afghan tradition. "One very harmful practice that we heard a lot about is baad, which is the giving away of girls to settle disputes," said Gagnon. "Many of the women told us that instead of a murderer being punished, an innocent girl is punished and she has to spend all her life in slavery and is subjected to cruel violence. Sometimes she is forced to sleep with the animals in the barn."

Western indifference

The report sets out a number of recommendations for the Afghan government to deal with the problem, but Grau says that the West has an obligation to apply pressure in order to protect women's rights – not least because this is often used to add legitimacy to the war in Afghanistan.

"We've noticed this in most of the western governments," she said. "For the past year, all the talk is about withdrawal of troops, and negotiations with the Taliban etc., and that Afghans have to work out for themselves how much democracy or women's rights they want. These are now all internal Afghan issues that aren't discussed or even noticed anymore. The German government is no exception to this."

She believes that pressure could be exhorted through the financial aid the West gives to the Afghan government. "The western governments still give Afghanistan a lot of development money," she said. "And when they make conditions for giving this money, we think they should make them for human rights and women's rights, not just for taking over security duties."

"The issue of women's rights was also one of the justifications for the war itself, but that is suddenly disappearing from the agenda," she added. "Earlier this year, (German Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle said, 'Well, Afghanistan is not Switzerland,' and with that everything is swept from the table."

Author: Ben Knight

Editor: Susan Houlton

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