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UN calls for more Afghan women protection

UN finds progress on tackling violence against women but calls for more action, as activists decry culture of impunity.
Last Modified: 12 Dec 2012 22:54
Lack of prosecutions makes perpetrators of attacks against women feel they can act with impunity, activists say [AFP]

A new report released by the UN says Afghan women are still victims of abuse despite some success by authorities in prosecuting cases of rape, forced marriages and domestic violence.

The UN collected information from 22 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces over a 12-month period ending in September to find out how existing laws protecting women were being implemented.

The report, released on Tuesday, said that although prosecutors and courts are increasingly applying the law, there is still a long way ahead before it can adequately protect Afghan women and girls from violence.

The publication, "A long way to go: Implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law in Afghanistan", comes a day after Najia Siddiqi, acting director of women's affairs for Laghman province, was killed in the provincial capital.

"Even with billions in foreign aid coming into Afghanistan there was no car for this woman. Had she been a commander she would have had a full security detail."

- Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security

The Elimination of Violence Against Women law, introduced in 2009, classified 22 acts as forms of violence against women.

The legislation made child marriage, forced marriage, forced self-immolation and other violent acts, including rape, a criminal offence.

Siddiqi's death, on UN Human Rights Day, comes five months after her predecessor, Hanifa Safi, was killed when a magnetic bomb attached to her vehicle exploded in July.

The two cases are being used by rights groups and activists to highlight the continued challenges faced by women in the Central Asian nation.

'Going backwards'

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security, said the deaths of Safi and Siddiqi highlight that little has changed since 2009.

In fact, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 4,010 cases of violence against women in the seven months between March and October this year, nearly twice as many as in the previous 12 months, the UN report said.

Citing the fact that Siddiqi, the highest-ranking female official in the province, was travelling in a motorised rickshaw at the time of the attack, Frogh said: "We are actually going backwards.

"Even with billions in foreign aid coming into Afghanistan there was no car for this woman. Had she been a commander she would have had a full security detail."

The lack of government protection for female officials was also highlighted in a report released by the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM) published on the day of Siddiqi's death.

The report, "Honour martyred women leaders, hold assassinator accountable", said that although the National Directorate of Security, the nation's spy agency, had foiled "numerous plots" to assassinate male officials, women often lack the "discretionary security arrangements" - armoured vehicles, blast-resistant offices, and intelligence alerts - afforded to their male counterparts.

Hard-working women

Frogh told Al Jazeera that female officials and activists often had to work harder and make do with fewer resources than their male counterparts.

For Frogh, this passion was most evident in Safia Amajan, who had served as the head of women's affairs in the southern province of Kandahar since the department opened in 2004.

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Amajan, who was described by ARM as a "genuine public servant." was gunned down outside her home in 2006.

Frogh recalls meeting the middle-aged woman who helped build the office "with her own hands", including walking in to see the woman dubbed "dear aunt" by her community, vacuuming what would be her office.

Though she was not powerful, Amajan was influential in Kandahar City, where she had taught young girls the Quran during Taliban rule.

As the head of women's affairs in the "spiritual homeland" of the Taliban, Amajan put herself at considerable risk,
but still continued to travel by taxi and had little fear for herself.

Frogh recalls a young girl who used to come to Amajan's office for floristry courses.

"Amajan would always ask 'How did you get here?' 'Did anyone see you?' 'What other cars were around when you arrived?'"

"She was worried about others, not herself," said Frogh.

Unknown attackers

Amajan's death, claimed by the Taliban, was the first high-profile attack on a woman after the fall of the group in 2001, but it was not the last.

Female activists and rights groups say a lack of prosecutions makes the perpetrators of such attacks against women feel they can operate with impunity.

In the last week there were four reported murders of women across several provinces.

Though Amajan was the first of five assassinations for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, Orzala Ashraf
Nemat, co-author of the ARM report, told Al Jazeera: "It's very important for the world to know that the Taliban are
not the only enemy of women" in Afghanistan.

Nemat, who shares Frogh's belief that the women targeted have put all they have into helping the community, said the
deaths of Safi and Siddiqi were an example of the "unknown armed men" increasingly behind attacks against women.

Warning given

For activists, it is little coincidence that both assassinations occurred in Laghman, where local commanders have been at odds with one another for some time.

Prior to her appointment at the women's affairs ministry, Safi was elected to the provincial counsel.

"Going from the provincial counsel to a ministerial post gave her access to a lot of resources - resources that local power-brokers may have wanted," said Nemat.

As far back as two years ago, Frogh said she had warned NATO about the dangers in Laghman province, one of the first provinces to be handed over to Afghan National Security Forces last autumn.

In the months following the August 2011 handover of the province, Frogh said the situation in Laghman quickly deteriorated as organisations working with women were often targeted or closed entirely.

"I am certain no one will take the position now. Even if a brave woman does decide to take it, no family will allow their daughter to put herself in the line of fire."

Wazhma Frogh, executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security

But it is the deaths of the female officials that may be one of the biggest blows to women in the province, as yet another woman in a decision-making role is gunned down.

"I am certain no one will take the position now," said Frogh.

"Even if a brave woman does decide to take it no family will allow their daughter to put herself in the line of fire." 

The UN has called on Afghan authorities to take "much greater steps to both facilitate reporting of incidents of violence against women and actually open investigations and take on prosecutions". 

But Nemat and Frogh both point to a culture of impunity for attacks against women.

In 16 of the nation's 34 provinces, the UN reported that only 21 per cent of the 470 reports of violence against women resulted in convictions.

The reason the Kabul government does not adequately prosecute the assailants, said Nemat, is they are often connected to powerful men - the president, one of his vice presidents, or other senior officials.

"With a single telephone call they are immune from any consequences," Nemat told Al Jazeera. 

This has created a culture, said Nemat, where the most an attacker feels they have to lose are "a couple of bullets".

Karzai criticised 

In their recommendations, the UN called on the Kabul government to "publicly emphasise that promotion and protection of women's rights is an integral part and main priority of peace and reconciliation throughout Afghanistan".

As an Afghan, Nemat took a harsher tone on Hamid Karzai's lack of action. 

"To see my president just shed tears is not satisfactory. The families should be shedding tears," she said. 

"Karzai has the executive power to identify the people who commit these crimes."

In August, Karzai was quoted as saying gains made by the nation's women must be "promoted and advanced further", but activisits say the president's actions belie such rhetoric.

Only months earlier, the Afghan president backed a March declaration by the nation's spiritual counsel emphasising the separation of the sexes - a move which earned the ire of rights groups.

Nemat says the president's lack of dedication to women's rights is evident in the capital's geography.

"The streets of Kabul are lined with places named for warlords and mujahideen leaders, but not one woman has been honoured," she said.

In fact, the president caused uproar when he changed the name of a high school in Kabul from Bibi Mahro, a female heroine of Afghan history, to Abdul Qayyum Wardak, a man that Afghan students say "no one knows", earlier this year.

Frogh says what the women of the nation want is simple: "We don't want to turn every woman into politcians, all we want is a stop to the deaths."

As the world begins to hear about the latest attack against a female official in Laghman province, the murder of Safi, now five months old, remains unsolved.

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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