This Backward Law Makes It Easier to Brutalize Afghan Women

The bill before the president means women won't be able to testify against abusive husbands and other nasty louts.

(Photo: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

Feb 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

A woman maimed by her husband wouldn't be able to testify against him.

A schoolgirl beaten by her brother for going to class wouldn't be able to complain to police either.

And if a father chose to execute one of his daughters? None of his other daughters or his wife would be able to speak up.

A law recently passed by Afghanistan's parliament could bar women from testifying against their relatives in any criminal prosecution, marking a new low for human rights in the country.

How have things become so dire for Afghan women in the years since Sept. 11? At that time, it seemed that the war in Afghanistan might have at least one positive outcome: If the Taliban could be driven from power, safety and freedoms for women and girls could improve.

The occupying force took concrete steps to see that hope come to fruition: On Dec. 12, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act, authorizing "the provision of educational and health care assistance to the women and children of Afghanistan." The following summer, Afghan women made history when they attended the loya jirga, or grand council meeting, where Hamid Karzai was chosen as the country's new leader.

Americans heard reports of girls returning to school and women free to wear clothing less restrictive than burkas.

But by the summer of 2011, a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of foreign affairs experts found Afghanistan to be the most dangerous country in the world for women. The poll cited rampant violence against women and girls, along with a stark lack of health care and brutal poverty, as key factors.

An Afghan law passed in 2009 criminalized acts of violence against women (at least on paper). These included forced marriage, forced self-immolation, giving away women or girls to settle disputes, and rape. But a U.N. report last year found the law has led to few prosecutions or convictions—even despite an increase in reported acts of violence against women.

This new piece of legislation barring women from ever testifying against their family members is expected to only increase that violence.

"Most violence toward women in Afghanistan is committed by family members," says Christine Hart, manager of policy and government affairs for Women Thrive Worldwide. "A lot of what we hear about, from child marriage to stonings to the gamut of domestic violence, is very much occurring within the family unit."

This law, she says, would allow men to commit these acts of violence knowing their victims were legally barred from objecting.

Now that the bill has passed the Afghan parliament, it only awaits President Karzai's signature. Will he sign? There is international pressure against it, but it's hard to gauge the level of internal pressure he's receiving to approve it.

Hart says it could make a difference if American voters reach out to the administration via whitehouse.gov, "really calling for the administration to act on this" by swiftly and clearly pressuring Karzai not to sign.

Voters can also make their voices heard by promoting the International Violence Against Women Act, which codifies the U.S.'s commitment to women and girls around the world. It was introduced in the House at the end of November and is expected to soon reach the Senate.

So "we're at that sort of critical political moment," Hart says, when Americans must call on their congressional representatives to take a stand for women and girls everywhere.