Rights Watchdog Alarmed At Continuing 'Honor Killings' in Afghanistan

"In 2005, we had 1,664 cases of violence against women -- including 47 cases of honor killings."

By Golnaz Esfandiari

RAGUE, September 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A UN-backed rights watchdog has expressed continuing concern over violence against women in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) released disturbing figures in mid-September on violence against women and girls, including dozens of cases of so-called honor killings.

Violence against women is widespread all over Afghanistan.

"The latest research by the underground women's rights organisation the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reveals that as many as 25,000 Afghan women worked as prostitutes in 2001 - 5,000 of those were in Kabul alone - with stark predictions that the number will rise as women and girls resort to selling themselves to escape poverty."

South China Morning Post, April 9, 2006

Mujahedeh's Story

Sixteen-year-old Mujahedeh was murdered by her own father -- ostensibly to redeem her family's "honor."

Her offense? Her family had accused her of bringing shame upon them by escaping a home in which she was subjected to daily beatings.

"She had enough," says Homa, a deputy director of a women's rights group called the Center for the Growth of the Talents of Afghan Women who got to know Mujahedeh. "She escaped home and went to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Then she spent some time in a ministry shelter. She liked to go to school and was busy studying. She was enjoying [better] conditions and she didn't want to return to her family, but her mother insisted they'd let her go to school -- her mother said, 'Your father has forgiven your sin.' And she was finally forced to return to her relatives Later it was heard from a neighbor or someone else that her father had murdered her when she returned."

Homa describes the teenager as a happy girl who liked to read and write.

The Center for the Growth of the Talents of Afghan Women has produced a documentary based on the plights of Mujahedeh and other female victims of violence.

Women and young girls are being strangled, beaten to death, and burned by their fathers, brothers, and uncles for refusing to enter arranged marriages or for committing adultery.

The movie is titled "Last Poem, Last Night," and it has casts a spotlight on a practice that women's rights defenders say is frighteningly prevalent in Afghanistan.

Unpunished Crime

Most cases of honor killings go unreported, and perpetrators rarely face justice.

Police and judicial authorities often turn a blind eye to the practice.

In Mujahedeh's case, no one has been prosecuted. Her family claims that she died following a sickness. But workers at the shelter where she stayed say she didn't suffer from any evident health problems.

Dr. Soraya Sobrang, who heads the women's affairs division of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, tells RFE/RL that honor killings are widely accepted, and considered by many Afghans to be a private family matter.

"I can tell you that they happen all over Afghanistan," Sobrang says. "Most of them get buried within the family, and no one is ever informed about them. But today, some cases are made public and are disseminated -- so we are able to get some figures. They take places in faraway villages in rural areas."

Underreported, But That's Improving

Sobrang says that since the fall of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, violence against women -- including honor killings -- is increasingly reported. She credits the information flow to a growing media, but also a changing attitude among women.

"In 2005, we had 1,664 cases of violence against women -- including 47 cases of honor killings. In 2006, we've recorded 704 cases of different types of violence so far -- including 20 honor killings," Sobrang says.

Those are only the documented cases. The true figure is likely to be higher.

Women and young girls are being strangled, beaten to death, and burned by their fathers, brothers, and uncles for refusing to enter arranged marriages or for committing adultery.

In some cases, rape or sexual-assault victims are being killed in macabre efforts at preserving family honor.

Family Values?

Homa says women who flee troubled homes are also being murdered by vindictive family members.

"Because of traditions and customs, most families are not ready to take in [women] who ran away or left home because of problems -- or when they take them in, it is only because they have forced them into accepting their conditions or because they want to punish them in a way that [ensures] no one else would dare to do the same," Homa says.

The AIHRC's Sobrang says tribal practices as well as freedom from prosecution are behind honor killings in Afghanistan.

"Honor killings happen mostly because a lack of awareness -- because of insecurity and also because women and children are the most vulnerable part of society. Our country had put about 30 years of conflict behind it, so a culture of violence dominates our society. There are also bad customs -- our society has been a patriarchal society."

Hope Of Progress

The Afghan Interior Ministry recently announced the creation of a special commission to tackle the issue of honor killings.

A ministry spokesman, Dad Mohammad Rasa, insists that such crimes are prosecuted. But in the same breath, he also concedes that honor crimes are deeply entrenched in Afghan society. He says stamping them out is a long-term project.

Sobrang says the judicial system and laws need to be reformed in order to stop the practice.

"This is one of the main ways to deal with this problem -- it means the rule of law should be applied in society and there should be security," Sobrang says. "Conditions should be [created] so that women can be empowered. Women should become active, and they should not be economically dependent. And also cultural work should be done, because violence has deep cultural roots."

Both activists say much groundwork needs to be laid to curb domestic violence in Afghanistan -- including its most extreme form: killings in the name of honor.

The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 women are victims of honor killings around the world each year.

Many cases are reported in Pakistan, Jordan, and Turkey. But the practice also exists in other countries -- including in Albania, Palestinian territories, and some parts of Iran and Iraq.

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