Afghan women human rights defenders tell of intimidation and attacks

Women human rights defenders in Afghanistan have told Amnesty International they face intimidation and attacks as they attempt to tackle violence and discrimination in the country.Women and girls in Afghanistan face widespread human rights abuses including abduction, rape and trafficking. More than 87 per cent of Afghan women suffer from domestic abuse, according to the UN, and between 60 and 80 per cent of marriages are forced. This is despite a pledge from the Afghan government to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality in Afghanistan.  Women who push for better human rights face systematic violence and threats from the Taleban and other anti-government groups, as well as local warlords and militias. The government does little to support women human rights defenders and sometimes actively hinders their work, eroding the hard-won gains Afghan women have made since the fall of the Taleban.In areas under the Taleban’s influence, it is all but impossible for women human rights defenders to continue their work, as several high profile women have been attacked and killed. Yet there are many brave and committed women who continue to challenge the status of women in Afghanistan. To mark International Women’s Day, Amnesty International spoke to four such women.The lawyerThe NGO directorThe human rights trainerThe parliament memberMasiha Faiz, 36Occupation: Defence Attorney for Medica Mondiale, a women’s rights NGOI work mostly on cases where women have been accused of moral crimes, like running away from home after being abused, or child custody cases where women have been abused and want to free their children from an abusive father. Even though there are many of these cases, it is difficult for us to get access to the victims. The police and courts don’t want us to defend these victims. They will hide the cases and try to send the women back without investigating. A woman’s word isn’t worth anything to them. NGOs are the only people who defend most female victims, as the government-funded defence attorneys mainly service men. This has become accepted practice but it is a major problem. Judges and police officials don’t care about what happens to women and they don’t follow the laws. The current system doesn’t help women, it hurts them.Because we work on women’s cases, the courts are not helpful to us. They don’t even inform us of court dates, which is especially difficult as we need time to transfer a woman from the shelter to the court. I am consistently threatened because of what I do, especially when I work in provinces outside of Kabul. We can file a formal complaint with the government or police, but it gets us nowhere.Defence attorneys are routinely pressured not to pursue certain cases, like kidnapping of girls, especially if there is a powerful commander involved. Many times we have to let go cases because we are threatened. I had a case where a girl was kidnapped by three men, who were all given 20 years in prison. After they were sentenced, the wife of one of the men and the brother of another threatened to attack me. I have seen them on my street and I fear retribution, but my purpose is to serve women. The threats don’t stop me.

Noor Marjan, 34Occupation: Acting Director of the Afghan Women’s Skills Development Centre, which runs various projects for women including women’s shelters.We have had almost 600 women in our shelters since April 2003. They have been victims of domestic violence, trafficking, forced marriage and other abuses. The challenge is what do we do with them once they are in the shelters. It is very difficult to defend the rights of these victims, the police and courts always assume it is the woman’s fault and do not offer us any assistance.Reintegrating these women into society is very difficult. Our laws are not implemented, the courts are not helpful. No one considers what is good for the women or what is required by law. Judges, police and other government officials make their own judgement and follow a moral code. We haven’t yet reintegrated a single Pashtun girl back into society. They have either been killed or the case has been unresolved. Our shelter is important because the police stations don’t have designated places for women. In the current holding places, women get abused and raped by police. I get harassed by police officers, judges and families of the victims. Sometimes I have to leave my house in the middle of the night to retrieve women from police stations. I do this work because what we do is very important. We protect victims of violence from being abused again.We recently opened a shelter for female police officers who have been threatened because of the work they are doing, especially helping women file complaints and protecting them from abusive situations. Although the Afghan government is constantly trying to recruit women to be police officers, they don’t have a way of protecting them. In this country, if you help a woman her family becomes your enemy because domestic violence is considered a family issue and it is shameful if the issue is taken outside the family.

Kamila Faizyar, 54Occupation: Human Rights Trainer for the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation (WCLRF)When I talk about domestic violence, most men tell me the Koran says that you can beat a woman. Most men who quote the Koran in response to our trainings have never read it, they are illiterate. They just listen to the local mullahs.We often go to villages where everything seems fine until we really probe during the training, and discover high levels of violence and forced marriages.I have been verbally attacked and threatened, especially when I conduct trainings in conservative places. People in the villages, especially the men, don’t like to hear about human rights from women. The mullahs we meet feel threatened by us. The men tell us we are provoking the women to turn against them.In most of the provinces there isn’t a safe place where women can register their complaints and issues. Very few cases are reported.

Shinkai Karokhail, 36Occupation: Member of the Afghan Parliament The only way to make women’s voices heard at the policy level is to have more female ministers. Every ministry should also have a female deputy minister, and we need more female district mayors. I was very upset when President Karzai announced the selections for his cabinet because he had named fewer women than in previous cabinets. There is a big problem with our school curriculum, even the new curriculum paid for by USAID and other donors. There is discriminatory language in our school textbooks and girls and women are rarely mentioned or used as positive examples. There is no mention of women as political leaders, police officers or in other professional careers. There is no commitment for financing and implementing the National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan (NAPWA), which identifies critical areas for change in policy and programs for women and girls. No donor, ministry or governmental body (other than the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) has made the NAPWA a priority. You can’t be an active woman in Afghanistan and not feel threatened. It is part of my daily life. I never know what is going to happen next. In the last five years, many high profile Afghan women have been killed for trying to raise the profile of women or defend their human rights. I take one day at a time but try to work on issues that will have a lasting effect.