December 11, 2013

When, in late November, I read a draft law prepared by Afghan government officials that reintroduced execution by stoning as the punishment for the “crime” of adultery, I was horrified but not that surprised. The draft, leaked to me by someone desperate to prevent reinstatement of this Taliban-era punishment, is just the latest in a pattern of increasingly determined attacks on women’s rights in Afghanistan.

The last 12 years have been a time of significant achievements here, hard-fought by Afghan activists. Millions of girls have gone to school, women have joined the police and the army and the civil service. Twenty-eight percent of the members of Afghanistan’s Parliament are women, and a 2009 law made violence against women a crime.

But signs are everywhere that a rollback of women’s rights has begun in anticipation of next year’s deadline for the withdrawal of international combat forces. Opponents of women’s rights are already taking advantage of growing international fatigue with Afghanistan.

On Monday, the United Nations issued a new report showing that while reported cases of violence against women went up by 28 percent in the last year, prosecutions increased by only 2 percent. A parliamentary debate last May on the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was derailed by conservatives calling for the abolition of a minimum marriage age for girls and arguing against making rape a crime. One of President Hamid Karzai’s new handpicked commissioners at the government’s previously well-respected Independent Human Rights Commission is an ex-member of the Taliban government who wasted no time after his appointment before calling for the repeal of the EVAW Law, which he said “violates Islam.”

These setbacks have occurred against a backdrop of continuing day-to-day abuses against women that are so commonplace that some extreme practices go almost unnoticed.

About half the women in prison in Afghanistan and about 95 percent of girls in juvenile detention — a total of about 600 people — are imprisoned on accusations of “moral crimes,” like sex outside of marriage or running away from home. In reality, most have fled forced marriages or domestic violence. Some are survivors of rape who are blamed by the courts for “immorality,” sometimes alongside their attackers.

Their stories are a call to the Afghan government to do much more to track down and punish abusers of women, and to crack down on police officers, prosecutors and judges who treat women fleeing abuse as criminals rather than victims. Above all, the government needs to end the barbaric practice of virginity tests. Whenever a woman or girl is arrested on “morality” charges — and sometimes even when she is accused of non-moral crimes such as theft or assault — she is whisked away for a vaginal examination at a government clinic in the province in which she was arrested. There is no opportunity for her to refuse.

Because of frequent mix-ups and general inefficiency, some women are sent for the examination two or three times. The examination, carried out by government doctors, results in a report on whether or not the woman or girl is a “virgin.”

These reports are often used as the sole evidence to support “moral crimes” charges in court, aside from a “confession” taken down by a police officer immediately after the arrest, which is usually signed with a thumbprint by a woman or girl who has no idea what it says. I have seen cases where a judge used the report as evidence against a girl even when its findings were inconclusive. For many of the 600 women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes,” the doctor’s observations are a key factor in her receiving a stiff prison sentence.

Forcing these women and girls to undergo invasive vaginal examinations, sometimes repeatedly, to ascertain “virginity” as evidence likely to be used against them in criminal proceedings is not only a form of degrading and inhuman treatment strictly prohibited by international law but also a violation of their basic fair trial rights.

All of this would be horrific enough if it weren’t bad science, but it is. “Virginity” tests have no medical validity. A medical examination cannot determine, with any level of accuracy useful to a court, a woman’s sexual history.

And despite progress in other countries in banning such examinations, there are no signs of this practice ending in Afghanistan. For vulnerable Afghan women, things are only getting worse. One recently proposed law revision would ban victims of crime from testifying against family members — effectively preventing all prosecutions for domestic violence and forced or underage marriage. Female activists in Afghanistan, who have accomplished so much in the past 12 years, are doing all they can now to prevent that progress from unraveling. Countries, including the United States, have pledged continued funding for services for Afghan women, but in addition to aid they need political support. International support for the Afghan government and its security must depend on continued progress for Afghan women. Anything less would be a betrayal.

Heather Barr is the senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch

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