There has been a sharp rise in Afghanistan of women and girls being imprisoned for ‘moral crimes,’ warned Human Rights Watch this Tuesday.
Upon that backdrop, HRW is urging the Afghan government to take urgent steps to halt what it describes as an alarming increase of these detentions, although it notes senior government officials in the past have failed to end such abuses.
Statistics from Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry indicate that the number of women and girls imprisoned for “moral crimes” in Afghanistan had risen to about 600 in May 2013 from 400 in October 2011 – a 50 percent increase in a year and a half. Since October 2011, there has been an almost 30 percent increase overall in the number of women and girls imprisoned in Afghanistan’s prisons and juvenile detention facilities.
“Four years after the adoption of a law on violence against women and twelve years after Taliban rule, women are still imprisoned for being victims of forced marriage, domestic violence, and rape,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Afghan government needs to get tough on abusers of women, and stop blaming women who are crime victims.”
In a March 2012 report, “‘I Had to Run Away’: The Imprisonment of Women and Girls for ‘Moral Crimes’ in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch documented that some 95 percent of girls and 50 percent of women imprisoned in Afghanistan were accused of the “moral crimes” of “running away” from home or zina (sex outside of marriage).
These “moral crimes” usually involve flight from unlawful forced marriages or domestic violence. Women and girls imprisoned on “moral crimes” charges who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch described abuses including forced and underage marriage below age 16, beatings, stabbings, burnings, rapes, forced prostitution, kidnapping, and threats of “honor killing.” Virtually none of the cases had led even to an investigation of the abuse, let alone prosecution or punishment.
“Running away,” or fleeing home without permission, is not a crime under the Afghan criminal code, but the Afghan Supreme Court has instructed its judges to treat women and girls who flee as criminals. Zina is a crime under Afghan law, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Some women and girls have been convicted of zina after being raped or forced into prostitution. Prosecution of women who are survivors of gender-based violence has continued, and many abusers of women have continued to go free in spite of Afghanistan’s 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW Law), which created new criminal penalties for abuse of women.
While several high-level Afghan government officials, including from the police and Justice Ministry, have in the past year publicly confirmed that “running away” is not a crime under Afghan law, such statements have yet to translate into policy, Human Rights Watch said.
Some legal experts have suggested that a growing view that women and girls should not be charged with “running away” has merely resulted in a shift toward charging them with attempted zina. A charge of attempted zina unjustifiably assumes that women outside of the supervision of their male relatives must have attempted to have sex.
Women and girls accused of “moral crimes” are routinely subjected to “virginity tests” that courts rely on for the purpose of determining virginity and whether a woman or girl engaged in recent sexual intercourse. These exams can be ordered by any police official, and some women are subjected to multiple vaginal exams without informed consent for no justifiable reason. Use of such examinations is not limited to rape cases, and examinations do not focus on documenting medical injuries or collecting physical evidence to support an allegation of sexual assault. Although medical examinations can be a legitimate form of investigation in cases of alleged sexual assault, gynecological exams that purport to determine “virginity” have no medical accuracy. Use of such tests constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.
“Coerced ‘virginity’ examinations are a form of sexual assault,” Adams said. “Afghan police, without any scientific basis, are routinely forcing these unspeakable examinations on women and girls.”
Some women and girls who flee violence at home are able to access help – rather than being arrested – through shelters. The number of women’s shelters in Afghanistan has increased from 14 in 2011 to 18 in 2013. However, the capacity of the shelters is far too limited for the number of women who require assistance, and fewer than half of the country’s 34 provinces have even a single shelter. There are no shelters in the more conservative southern half of the country.
These shelters may not be sustainable as they are entirely funded by international donors, and donor assistance is dropping rapidly as the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of international combat forces from Afghanistan approaches. The Afghan government has shown no interest in funding shelters through the government budget and has at times taken actions detrimental to the shelters, including a 2011 effort to take over the shelters and 2012 statements by the justice minister accusing shelters of “moral corruption.”
“Afghanistan’s donors have a crucial role to play in supporting shelters that are literally life-saving for many women,” Adams said. “They should not only help ensure the survival of the shelters that exist, but support expansion of the shelter system including in southern Afghanistan.”