Plight of Afghan Women May Worsen as War Effort is Stepped Up, Warns Report

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The Guardian/UK

Plight of Afghan Women May Worsen as War Effort is Stepped Up, Warns Report

by
Jon Boone in Kabul

A human rights group has highlighted a catalogue of abuse of women in Afghanistan. (Photo: AFP)

The already dire plight of women in Afghanistan
risks deteriorating further as the US and its allies take steps to turn
around the war against the Taliban, according to a report by Human Rights Watch today.

Eight
years after the Taliban were ousted from power, rapists are often
protected from prosecution, women can still be arrested for running
away from home, and girls have far less access to schools than boys,
the report says.

With the insurgency strengthening in the south
and making inroads into the north, the few gains made for women's
rights since the US-led invasion of 2001 could be further eroded if Hamid Karzai's government and the international community push for peace talks with factions of the fundamentalist movement.

Among
the examples of abuses against women collected by the organisation was
the case of a woman who was gang raped by a group that included a
powerful local militia commander.

Although she fought to have her
rapists prosecuted, they were subsequently pardoned by Karzai. Later,
her husband was assassinated.

Rape was put on the statute books
as a criminal offence this year but it is still not widely regarded by
the police or the courts as a serious crime, with the attackers often
receiving greater legal protection than the victims.

One survey found that 52% of women had experience physical violence, while 17% reported sexual violence.

"Police
and judges see violence against women as legitimate, so they do not
prosecute cases," said Soraya Sobhrang, a commissioner at the
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Human Rights
Watch said that more than half the women and girls in Afghan prisons
were held for "moral crimes", such as adultery or running away from
home - although the latter is not a crime under Afghan or Islamic law.

"Whether
it is a high-profile woman under threat, a young woman who wants to
escape a child marriage, or a victim of rape who wants to see the
perpetrator punished, the response from the police or courts is often
hostile," the group said.

Rachel Reid, of Human Rights Watch, said the situation "could deteriorate".

She
added: "While the world focuses on the Obama administration's new
security strategy, it's critical to make sure that women's and girls'
rights don't just get lip service while being pushed to the bottom of
the list by the government and donors."

The report also warns that wives in half of all marriages are younger than 16, and up to 80% take place without consent.

A
13-year old girl said that after she escaped marriage she was pursued
by her husband's family. Years later she still has not succeeded in
getting a legal separation from her illegal marriage and women's
activists have been denounced in parliament for giving her shelter.

Campaigners
have also been angered by the murders of high-profile women, including
Sitara Achakzai, an activist and member of Kandahar's provincial
council, who was shot dead in April.

A female member of
parliament, who cannot be named, said: "I've had so many threats. I
report them sometimes, but the authorities tell me not to make enemies,
to keep quiet. But how can I stop talking about women's rights and
human rights?"

In August, Afghanistan quietly passed a law
permitting Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they
refuse to obey their husbands' sexual demands, despite international
outrage following a report in the Guardian about an earlier version of
the legislation, which Karzai had promised to review.

Although
western and Afghan politicians like to hail the increase in school
building since 2001 as a major success story, the Human Rights Watch
report says the participation of girls remains very low, with just 11%
of secondary school-aged children in education.

Karzai, who was
reappointed as president after a fraud-marred election regarded by most
legal experts as unconstitutional, is due to announce his new cabinet
in the coming days.

Human Rights Watch called on Karzai to release all women detained for running away from home and offer them compensation.

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