News

In Afghanistan, years of inequality and violence give way to a fragile hope

8 December 2020
Author: UNFPA
A survivor of gender-based violence receives support at a family protection centre in Afghanistan. © UNFPA Afghanistan

BAMYAN, Afghanistan – “My life has been hard. I have suffered for a long time,” said Khadija, a woman from Bamyan in central Afghanistan. “My husband told me frequently, ‘You’re not able to give me a son’,” she recalled.

She gave birth to a daughter, but it was not enough for him – he decided to acquire a second wife.

Son preference is common in Afghanistan, as it is in many cultures around the world. It is a reflection of extreme gender inequality and the low status of women and girls.

Most women in Afghanistan feel huge pressure to produce sons. Some even face violence or abandonment if they do not give birth to boys.

Diminished status and violence

Khadija felt helpless when her husband’s new wife gave birth to a son. Not only did the second wife become the ‘favourite’ spouse, but Khadija also felt disrespected and shunned by her husband’s family.

Things only worsened from there.

When her husband’s son became a teenager, he started to physically abuse Khadija.

That is when she reached out to a family protection centre run by UNFPA.

Khadija had learned about the facility from other women in the village. She built up the courage to visit the centre with her mother.

Counsellor Abida Rahimi welcomed Khadija and reassured her that she was safe.

Khadija was able to receive help for more than just her family situation: Years of marginalization meant that she had not been empowered to seek health care. As a result, she faced chronic untreated gastric and pelvic problems. Through the protection centre, she received medication for both conditions.

Khadija also began to receive psychosocial counselling, and she was able to seek legal support.

“Besides treatment and psychosocial support, which reduced the stress associated with surviving systematic violence, Khadija needed to access legal services,” Ms. Rahimi explained.

Dealing with grim realities

Khadija gained confidence through the individual counselling sessions, and she also attended family counselling sessions.

Still, after much consideration, she decided against referring her case to the police.

Afghanistan’s law on the elimination of violence against women makes clear that gender-based violence is a crime; justice, prosecution and compensation are key priorities of the Government. But turning policy into action has proved difficult.

Many women in Afghanistan choose not to report or prosecute such crimes because doing so can result in repercussions for the complainant and her family. Criminal complaints can even escalate into conflict and violence. In some cases, abusers have threatened women and their families after being released from court or prison.

As a result, legal proceedings are often seen as a short-term solution to stop violence, rather than a means to achieve long-term protection or freedom from abuse.

“This is a persistent challenge,” noted Sulaf Mustafa, who coordinates UNFPA’s programme to end gender-based violence in Afghanistan. “A holistic approach is needed to ensure that women and their families feel safe to report violence and feel confident that when justice is served there are no reverberations. Only then can Afghan society begin to truly eliminate violence against women.”

All-of-society approach

Khadija eventually returned home. The abuse has stopped, but the environment remains fraught with tension. “I’m eager to live my life without violence,” she told UNFPA.

Meanwhile, thousands more women face similar risks. With support from the Republic of Korea, UNFPA’s family protection centres served more than 10,600 survivors of gender-based violence between January and September of this year.

“Khadija’s story symbolizes the plight of many, demonstrating the need for an all-of-society approach to tackling this scourge,” Ms. Mustafa explained.

A lasting solution must include empowering women and securing their human rights, experts say.

“In a context where there aren't many opportunities for women – if any – women frequently have no choice but to stay in a violent household and never break the cycle and set themselves free,” said Ms. Mustafa.

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