Afghans feel enormous anxiety as the 2014 deadline for withdrawing international combat forces from Afghanistan looms, and powerbrokers jockey for position. 

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The Afghan government’s failure to respond effectively to violence against women undermines the already-perilous state of women’s rights. President Hamid Karzai’s endorsement in March of a statement by a national religious council calling women “secondary,” prohibiting violence against women only for “un-Islamic” reasons, and calling for segregating women and girls in education, employment, and in public, raises questions about the government’s commitment to protecting women. The minister of justice’s description of battered women shelters as sites of “immorality and prostitution” deepens that skepticism.

Government efforts to stifle free speech through new legislation and targeting individual journalists were a worrying new development in 2012, while a crackdown on a political party that advocates prosecuting warlords provided a troubling indication of the government’s approach to the rights to freedom of association and expression of political parties ahead of the 2014 presidential election.

Civilian casualties from the civil armed conflict remained alarmingly high, and re-vetting of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) was underway due to abuses by these forces. Rising numbers of “green on blue” attacks where members of the Afghan security forces target foreign soldiers prompted joint operations with foreign troops to be curtailed during the year.

Taliban laws-of-war violations against civilians continued, particularly indiscriminate attacks causing high civilian losses. Following the end of the United States military “surge,” many areas of Afghanistan remained under Taliban control, where Taliban abuses, particularly against women and girls, were endemic.

Violence and Discrimination against Women and Girls

A series of high-profile attacks on women highlighted the heightened danger that the future holds for Afghan women. The Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted in 2009, remains largely unenforced. Women and girls who flee forced marriage or domestic violence are often treated as criminals rather than victims. As of spring 2012, 400 women and girls were in prison and juvenile detention for the “moral crimes” of running away from home or sex outside marriage.

The late December 2011 arrest and subsequent trial of the in-laws of Sahar Gul—a girl sold into marriage at 13, locked in a basement, and tortured by her in-laws after she refused their demands that she become a prostitute—underlined the threat posed to Afghan girls by unchecked violence against women.

The unsolved February murder in Bamiyan of an adolescent girl named Shakila led to street protests in Kabul and Bamiyan, and complaints from Bamiyan officials to President Karzai over what was seen as a cover-up by government officials of a murder. In July, a videotaped public execution of a woman in Parwan for the alleged “crime” of adultery followed by the assassination of the head of the government’s Department of Women’s Affairs in Laghman highlighted the erosion of legal protections for Afghan women. 

In the spring and summer, a series of “poisonings” at girls’ schools in several provinces, alleged by the Afghan government to have been perpetrated by opponents of girls’ education, escalated fear for schoolgirls and their families. World Health Organization (WHO) investigations of some cases pointed to mass hysteria as the likely cause. The Afghan government made several arrests, prompting the United Nations to accuse the Afghan government of extracting forced confessions from the alleged perpetrators.

Armed Conflict

The security transition moved rapidly, with international forces handing over large areas of the country to Afghan security forces. NATO claimed no increases in insurgent attacks in most areas, while evidence emerged of the failure by Afghan security forces to maintain control in other areas including formerly peaceful Bamiyan province. Afghan security forces increasingly assumed a leadership role in military operations, according to NATO, including controversial “night raids.”

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