Afghan women protest against street harassment in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 14, 2011.

(New York) – Afghanistan’s new government should take urgent steps to combat sexual harassment of women in education, employment, and public life, Human Rights Watch said today. There are no laws in Afghanistan that specifically prohibit sexual harassment or protect victims.

Government institutions lack effective policies to prevent and punish sexual harassment, Human Rights Watch said.  On October 5, 2014, President Ashraf Ghani described levels of sexual harassment in schools as “shocking.” He ordered the Ministry of Education to report every incident of sexual harassment in schools to enable action against harassers, and directed relevant ministries to develop a plan to counter sexual harassment in educational institutions.

“President Ghani’s recognition of sexual harassment in Afghanistan as ‘shocking’ is spot-on,” said Heather Barr, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Afghan government should promptly enact a law against sexual harassment and ensure that every government institution develops and implements an anti-sexual harassment policy.”

Sexual harassment is a major problem in Afghanistan, where women and girls have had to struggle to regain their rights after being completely shut out of education and employment during Taliban rule until their ouster in 2001. There has been significant progress in improving girls’ access to education and integrating women into the Afghan parliament and civil service but unchecked sexual harassment has been a significant obstacle to women’s employment and participation in public life. Harassment on the street is a daily experience for women and girls, and women who have sought help from the police in response to harassment and even threats have typically received no assistance.

Sexual harassment within the workplace, including in government, is an especially serious problem, Human Rights Watch said. Government institutions have made almost no effort to prohibit harassment and assist victims. Only one government agency, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, has developed anything resembling an anti-sexual harassment policy. The directorate’s “anti-harassment policy guideline” cites a commitment in the government’s 2007-2017 National Action Plan for the Women of Afghanistan to adopt and implement “a policy against sexual harassment” as the basis for the guideline. This sets out a detailed description of harassment and measures a victim can take, including anonymously seeking the assistance of a Conflict Resolution Committee.

Women in the police force have faced particularly high levels of harassment and at times sexual assault, exacerbated by the government’s failure to provide women with safe working conditions. Women’s justified fears of this have contributed to the country’s miniscule number of female police officers, which remains below 2 percent of the police force. Lack of women in the police force has in turn been a major barrier to the enforcement of Afghanistan’s 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law). In Afghanistan’s deeply gender-segregated society, many women would not feel able to speak with a man who is not their relative to report a crime, let alone discuss sensitive issues covered by the EVAW Law such as domestic violence, rape and forced marriage.

“Afghan women and girls should be able to study, work and participate in public life knowing that they will be treated with dignity and respect,” Barr said. “President Ghani has a unique opportunity to back sweeping reforms on sexual harassment that could dramatically change women’s role in Afghan society.”