Women's Rights in Afghanistan

Without Hope

The situation of women in Afghanistan has not improved since the overthrow of the Taliban, report Afghan human rights activists. Many commit suicide to escape domestic violence. Claudia Isabel Rittel reports

Women in the Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar (photo: dpa)
"After the severe repression of the Taliban there was a certain euphoria. But today many women are losing all hope because their situation is not improving," says Selmin Çalışkan of <i>medica mondiale</i>

​​Women in Afghanistan continue to be denied basic rights and live under appalling conditions. Many are so desperate that they take their own lives. "Suicide attempts by women in Afghanistan have increased sharply in recent years – especially among 15- to 19-year-olds," says Nabila Wafeq, who works for the women's rights organization medica mondiale in Afghanistan.

One method frequently used to escape violence and oppression is self-immolation. Confined to their houses without any possibility of asking for help, women reach for a bottle of benzene and a match, ingredients found in every kitchen.

Widespread ignorance of the consequences

The number of self-immolations has increased dramatically during the last few years. Even the local television station in Herat warned of the consequences in a broadcast. "Most of them are ignorant of what they are doing and the pain that awaits them if they survive the burns," says Kabul doctor Homeira Ameery.

medica mondiale assumes that several hundred women put an end to their suffering every year. There are no exact figures, since in most cases the families do not talk about these incidents – they could stain the family honor. Although the suicide rate among men has also risen, according to a study by the women's organization, suicide is primarily a female phenomenon.

The reason for these acts of desperation is the hopelessness of many women, who are often sold by their own families to the highest-bidding suitor and are perceived merely as servants by their parents-in-law.

Through forced marriages, young girls who often are not even 15 years old are at the mercy of their husbands and their families. According to studies by medica mondiale, self-immolation is almost always a flight from violence and abuse.

Ignorant of their rights

Many men, on the other hand, have another explanation – for them, the women simply aren't able to cope with the housework and their parents-in-law. The police and the courts frequently play down the problem as well.

Particularly illiterate persons – and over 80% of the women are still illiterate – know almost nothing about their rights and have no opportunity to talk to people other than family members. In addition, the precarious security situation reduces the sphere of action for many women even more.

Fathers and husbands force women and girls back into their homes. "Women are in a much worse position again today than shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban," says Selmin Çalışkan of medica mondiale.

Husbands claim back dowry

"After the severe repression of the Taliban there was a certain euphoria. But today many women are losing all hope because their situation is not improving." Although there is also progress, for example, in the field of education, particularly in rural areas women see little difference.

Those who survive their suicide attempts are accused of bringing shame to the family. They are shunned by the community, and the husband's families often demand the bride price back.

Their husbands, however, are rarely called to account, says Kabul lawyer Massouda Navabi. And even if they are convicted, they frequently do not have to serve the full sentence, because their families buy their freedom after a few months in prison.

Claudia Isabel Rittel

© Development & Cooperation 2007

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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