July 22, 2014

The alleged rape of a 10-year-old Afghan girl by a mullah in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, provides grim foreshadowing of the fragility of hard-won rights for women and girls in Afghanistan. The victim, who suffered severe internal injuries from the alleged rape, has received death threats from her own family, who are seeking a so-called honor killing. Staff at a women’s shelter that sought to protect the child have also received death threats. The victim’s family and some other mullahs support the alleged rapist’s explanation that he had engaged in consensual sexual intercourse with the girl. 

The Kunduz case, as reported by the New York Times on Saturday, is a horrific reminder of the need for Afghanistan’s next president to make the protection and promotion of the rights of women and girls a priority for his administration. That should include vigorous enforcement of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), signed by President Hamid Karzai in 2009, which for the first time made rape, child marriage, and forced marriage crimes in Afghanistan and imposed tough new penalties for domestic violence. While the EVAW Law represented crucial progress for Afghan women, enforcement of its provisions by the Afghan government has been disappointingly slow and patchy.

There are other signs that women’s rights are under attack. Some Afghan members of parliament have argued for repeal of the EVAW Law. A year ago, the courts reversed the 10-year sentences handed down to the in-laws who brutally abused 13-year-old bride Sahar Gul in a case that had previously been seen as emblematic of the positive impact of EVAW. Laws have been proposed that would have excluded women from testifying against family members who abuse them and even reinstated stoning as a punishment for adultery. Over the past year, female police officers, legislators, and activists suffered attacks – some fatal – and threats without receiving support from the government.

Foreign donors should be mindful that their eagerness to reduce their involvement in Afghanistan in line with the planned end-2014 withdrawal of foreign military forces is creating a space in which opponents of women's rights have freer rein to pursue their agenda. Foreign donors, who continue to provide virtually all of the Afghan government’s budget, should insist that it respect and strengthen legal protection of women. A failure to do so will only condemn more of Afghanistan’s women and girls to rape, murder, and other abuses that the country’s government and donors have promised to eradicate.