In 2009, the government of Afghanistan passed the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, which signified that the country was ready to make strides to decrease instances of gender-based violence and ensure that justice was provided to victims. The pursuit of the elimination of violence cannot end with the passing of this legislation, however. The fact that Afghanistan is still classified as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman and only 36% of Afghan women perceive themselves to be safe indicates that there is still a significant amount of work to be done. Amid U.S plans to withdraw troops and growing donor fatigue, the European Union must be mindful that any ground that has been gained for women’s rights in Afghanistan, can quickly be undone. If the EU hopes to accomplish the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of gender equality, Afghan women who continue to suffer from gender-based violence cannot be left behind.
According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, 60% of Afghan women have experienced lifelong sexual or physical violence at the hands of their partner. According to the United Nations Database on Violence Against Women, 46% of women had experienced sexual or physical violence at the hands of their partner within the last twelve months. Unfortunately, these statistics barely scratch the surface of the atrocities that continue to be perpetrated against women in Afghanistan. Rape, sex trafficking, and acid burnings are still too common in the country and, although explicitly listed as serious offences in the EVAW, are rarely thoroughly investigated or prosecuted. Instead, the majority of the victims are pressured into resolving their case via mediation or are turned away completely. The way that these cases are handled not only undermines the faith of Afghan women in their legal system, but it deprives them of justice and normalises these horrific crimes. The European Union must urge the Afghan government to ensure that mediation is only used in cases involving civil disputes or petty crimes, as outlined by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. In cases of murder, beatings, or mutilation, mediation should never be used as it sends a clear message to men that these actions are acceptable.
Another way that the EU can ensure that women who become victims of gender-based violence are protected and receive the justice that they deserve is to urge the Afghan government to revise their penal code in order to criminalise these types of violent acts. The Afghan government has undoubtedly made progress in this area by removing judicial discretion involving crimes with an “honour” dimension when revising their penal code last year, but the chapter that penalized individuals who commit violent acts against women was removed prior to adoption. Although the Elimination of Violence Against Women law is still applicable, it is a stand-alone document whose implementation is not comprehensive, especially in rural areas of the country. In order to ensure that women are protected as thoroughly as possible, pushing for a revision of the penal code is a good place to start.
In the EU-Afghanistan Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development that was adopted on March 13th of this year, it is mentioned that the EU is particularly focused on improving the conditions of women in the country. In order to stay in alignment with this statement in the midst of an inconsistent criminal justice system in Afghanistan, the EU must ensure that there is an adequate amount of safe spaces that Afghan women can access if they are a victim of gender-based violence or are at risk of becoming a victim. Since many shelters provide educational services in addition to serving as a safe haven for women who are at risk of honour killings or other forms of violence, it is vital that their funding is always secured. This is especially important considering the negative attitudes towards these institutions among the majority of conservative Afghan men and the Afghan government itself. With the slow removal of western presence in the country, there are fears that the Afghan government could opt to take control of or close these shelters down. For example, if the Afghan government were to take control of the shelters, new rules may be enacted to strictly regulate their usage. Such rules may include the requirement of invasive virginity testing to prove that the women living at the shelters are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. This was a matter of grave concern in 2011 when a government takeover of women’s shelters in Afghanistan almost came to pass. The European Union must renew its commitment to providing funding to ensure that this does not happen and the doors of these essential shelters stay open.
The ability to feel safe is an essential aspect of an individual’s well being. In order to promote the welfare of Afghan women, comprehensive legal protection must be accomplished, and women must have safe havens available for them to utilise whenever they need. With support from the European Union, this can become a reality in Afghanistan.