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The crime of shame

Gul Rahim Niazman, Naqib Ahmad Atal, Farhad Peikar
Incidents of sexual assault on women and minors are sharply increasing in Afghanistan, especially in the northern provinces, say rights activists. Much of the blame is levelled at renegade militias and armed groups…
21.08.2011  |  Kunduz/Takhar, Jalalabad, Kabul
A masked guest appearing on TV1's talk show Neqaab (veil). Aimed at highlighting the abuses many women face by men, the show has drawn admiration from some, threats from others. (Photo: TV1)
A masked guest appearing on TV1's talk show Neqaab (veil). Aimed at highlighting the abuses many women face by men, the show has drawn admiration from some, threats from others. (Photo: TV1)

One night in May, a group of armed men, some in police uniform, entered Meena’s family home in Takhar Province and began ransacking the rooms. Her stepmother was struck when she tried to stop them taking the 12-year-old girl aside, supposedly for a talk with their commander.

“They took me to another room and when I tried to escape they held me firmly,” Meena recalled, sobbing. “There were two people in the room who raped me, then I fell unconscious and when I opened my eyes I was in my mother’s arms.”

Three hours later, other police officers came to their home, listened to the distraught family’s account of the incident and left, saying they had no evidence to go on. That was the last visible effort by the authorities to investigate.

“I want the government to find those people and hang them in a public place so that others learn a lesson,” Meena’s stepmother Zahra said. “But if the government can’t do that, then it should kill all of us instead.”

Tip of the iceberg

The assault was among a rising number - by 100 per cent in some areas - of rape cases that have come to the attention of rights activists in the past year, especially in the northern region.

The unusual thing, however, was that the family turned to the authorities for help. The vast majority of sexual assaults are thought to go unreported, as cases are often hushed up by victims’ families to avoid public shame, or vengeance is taken directly on perpetrators.

“Afghanistan is a closed society, so in many cases the families don’t talk about these cases because it brings disgrace upon their families,” said Latifah Sultani, coordinator for women’s affairs at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

But sparse statistics that exist do indicate a sharp rise in either incidence and/or willingness among victims to come forward and be counted.

The AIHRC recorded 71 rape cases so far this year, “with a staggering rise” in the northern provinces of Takhar, Sar-e Pul and Kunduz, said Sultani.

Sar-e Pul recorded eight cases in the first three months of the year compared to four throughout 2010. Cases of violence against women nationwide increased by 48 per cent compared with the same period last year. (AIHRC counted 2,765 cases in 2010, including 130 rapes, and a total of 1,026 cases in the first three months of this year.)

“Lack of a proper justice system and impunity has been the main reason for the increase,” said Sultani, also citing as a factor the rearming of local militia forces that were allegedly behind cases of gang-rape and other violent assaults.

Culprits with clout usually walk free

Less than half of all rape recorded cases this and last year were dealt with by the courts, and the rest of the perpetrators went free, her organization claims. Making matters worse, around two-thirds of the 130 documented cases last year involved victims under 16, including many boys. 

“Many powerful people or their close relatives have been behind a lot of the violence against women,” said female parliamentarian Shinkai Karokhail. “But they can easily evade imprisonment because they are connected to senior officials in the government or they use their wealth to bribe the police or judges.”

"Powerful men and commanders use rape as a weapon against people, families and tribes so that they can create fear."

Karokhail was one of a group of MPs that met with President Hamid Karzai after another gang rape of a minor in Takhar this spring. The president seemed committed to help such victims and bring the guilty to justice, the MP said, but “the problem is that the government does not have full control over the police forces.”

Wazhma Frough is an executive member of the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), an umbrella group for around 100 organizations that promote women's rights in Afghanistan.

Like Sultani, she blames much of the problem on local police units that were created in the last year, and which Karzai recently ordered to be disbanded in some areas due to the huge number of complaints from local people.

“The Afghan government has lost control over these powerful local militia forces and they continue their crimes with impunity,” said Frough, whose organization works with Parliament to pressure the government to bring culprits to justice.

“These powerful men and commanders use rape as a weapon against people, families and tribes so that they can create fear in communities and no one will dare to stand up against them,” she said.

Another female activist, who requested anonymity, said that as well as local militia, national police forces have also been involved in rape cases: “It has become a trend now,” she said.

An official from the Supreme Court, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that many cases never come to light because offenders are well connected.

“Their cases rarely reach the court, because when they get arrested, they are released soon after police get a call,” he said. “Senior government officials support these militia forces because they think that if the foreign forces leave and Taliban come back as a strong force, then these militias will protect them.”

However, the Interior Ministry says it is committed to stamping out this crime as much as any other, whoever the offenders are.

“It is our job to arrest rapists and other criminals, even if they are members of police forces,” spokesman Sediq Sediqi said, but adding they did not have any reports of rape cases in which members of the national police forces were complicit. “I admit that there were some instances in the past that criminals used police uniforms or local armed forces introduced themselves as ALP (Afghan Local Police) to commit these crimes.”

Example from the top

MP Shinkai Karokhail believes powerful and connected people are responsible for many violent assaults on women, sexual or otherwise. (Photo: Leslie Knott)

In 2008, President Karzai’s track record on the issue took a blow when he pardoned three men who had been found guilty in court of gang raping a woman in Samangan Province. It was later alleged that they were subordinates of a commander who ensured him support in the region.

In 2009, Karzai's commitment to protecting women’s rights came under further criticism when he pushed through a law that effectively made it legal for a husband to rape his wife.

Seen as a pre-election bid to curry favour among ethnic Hazara voters, the Shia Family Law, as well as regulation of family matters, negated the need for sexual consent between married couples.

Denounced at the time by Karokhail as “one of the worst bills passed by Parliament this century,” the law drew a warning from the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Unifem, that its content “legalises the rape of a wife by her husband.”

International pressure prompted the president to order the amendment of some of the more controversial clauses of the legislation, says AIHRC.

Judicial struggle to define the crime

Progress has been hampered by the lack of a clear and singular definition of rape in Afghan law.

“Most judges regard sodomy, adultery and rape as the same crime, without taking into consideration the aspect of willingness in adultery, while in rape the victim is forced into sex,” said Frough. “We had one instance where 13-year-old girl [victim of rape] went to jail on charges of adultery.”

Deputy Attorney General Rahmatullah Nazari agreed that loose definition of the crime has been a problem. But two years ago the government drafted a new law, the terms of which, while not yet passed by parliament, are now being enforced.

“Things are much clearer in this law than before,” said Nazari, adding that a new department was also created in the Attorney General’s office to deal specifically with violence against women, but is so far only functional in Kabul.

The new legal provisions separate rape from adultery as crimes, and according to article 17, a convicted rapist can be jailed for 15 to 20 years.

Sultani of AIHRC said the new law came into existence after activists pressured the president to amend lenient existing legislation. But judges still sentence rapists to lesser punishments than prescribed, she said: “A 60 year-old-man raped a teenage boy in Baghlan Province earlier this year, but he was only sentenced to six years in jail.”

Eastern provinces take matters into their own hands

Compared to other parts of the country, rape cases are recorded far less in the four eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman.

“Families here never want to report such cases to human rights groups or media because they regard them as a huge disgrace,” said Sabrina Hamidi, who worked in this region for AIHRC since 2003.

Only 15 cases were recorded in these provinces in 2010, and only three perpetrators were arrested, Hamidi said. 

“Families never want to report such cases to human rights groups or media, because they regard them as a huge disgrace.”

In these predominantly Pashtun areas, sexual assaults are often resolved by families, either by direct and violent vengeance on the attacker, or through tribal jirgas.

The verdicts of jirgas can be drastic and unfathomable to those raised outside the tribal environment. The family of the perpetrator may have to give a girl to the victim’s family as compensation. In some cases jirgas even order a rapist to marry his victim to avoid bloodshed.

Of the 350 victims of rape the Afghan Women’s Network worked with since 2006, just over 100 of these received any form of perceived justice, mainly through local jirgas in these provinces and beyond.

But these traditions also face changes, depending on how possible it will be to impose state law in tribal regions. Under the new legislation being enforced, baad (the giving of a female as compensation for a crime) is a crime. A person who sanctions this, usually the father or brother, can face a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Case in the spotlight

Two months ago, 13-year-old Aziza, was kidnapped and raped in the Sangcharak district in Sar-e Pul by the commander of a local armed group. She was then left by a bridge where she was later found by a local woman.

Under pressure by tribal elders and people close to the commander, Aziza’s father agreed to marry her off to him. But the girl escaped to Kabul with the help of her cousin.

“We are poor people, all we want is for this man to be punished for what
he has done,” Aziza, looking pale ands still shaken by her ordeal, said this month in an appearance on the Zang Khatar (Danger Chime) programme on the Tolo TV private broadcaster.

It's a long walk to safety for many Afghan women. (Photo: Allen)

Entreaties to the district governor resulted in nothing. Speaking anonymously on the show, Aziza’s cousin said the accused commander was a powerful man and that government forces would not dare to arrest him.

Asked about the lapse in justice, Sangcharak district governor Mahlem Sakhidad however told Afghanistan Today that he ordered the commander's arrest the same day as the incident happened, but he had vanished: “He is not in his home, either he is hiding somewhere in the district or he has gone and joined the opposition forces.

Sultani of AIHRC confirmed the details Aziza’s case, having also seen the results of a hospital examination of the girl after the assault. But recourse to state law was no guarantee of justice, she said, especially in rural areas where many rape victims come from.

“In many rural areas the judges are closed-minded people and don’t even believe in women’s rights. So how in such a society can you expect justice for these victims?” she said. “The government is weak and cannot implement the rule of law in rural areas, and local militia forces are in control of everything.”

Breaking the silence

It is programmes like Danger Chime that are hoped to break the wall of silence around the issue of sexual assault.

Samai Mehdi is a producer and presenter for Kabul’s TV 1 channel. Earlier this year he launched another programme called Neqaab (veil), in which female guests masked for their own safety talk about abuses at the hands of powerful people or their own family members, mainly their husbands. Some were bullied and beaten, others raped or forced into prostitution.

After the women speak, a panel of people from across the social spectrum, such as rights activists, Islamic scholars, or members of parliament, offers their thoughts on cases.

“Our aim is to tell society about their unjust experiences, and we also try to inform women about their rights,” Mehdi said. “Our programme has brought some relief to these women because they see there are people who will listen and care.”

The show drew a lot of comment from viewers, from praise on the producer's Facebook page to threatening phone calls. “Some of these callers said that what I present is not in our tradition or religion,” he said. “My answer to him was that violence against women was not part of our tradition and our religion does not allow such oppression of women either.”

Voices in the darkness

Interior Ministry spokesman Sediqi stresses that the state authorities "regard rape as a serious crime and we are committed to bring the culprits to justice.”

But at no point did police ever come to TV1 with requests for details of criminal incidents alleged on Neqaab, Mehdi notes. And as for hopes that lawmakers will busy themselves with female abuse issues now being publicly aired, the MP Karokhail is sceptical.

“Our parliamentarians are busy dealing with their own matters, such as the election [redistribution of some seats controversially won in 2010],” she said. “They don’t have time for women or their plight.”

However, another side to the growing sexual assault statistics may be that as well as indicating greater frequence, more women are speaking up about crimes against them, said Karokhail: “When they see one person speaking on TV or in public, many other victims feel that they should do the same.”