As I entered the room to meet my client Sahar Gul, the frail teenager recited how she was beaten, burned, starved, enslaved, and tortured for months in her in-laws’ basement for refusing to be trafficked as a prostitute. President Hamid Karzai told the international press that her case would be “seriously investigated” and ordered the immediate arrest of those who tortured her so severely, she could not walk and was forced to eat intravenously for months. Even after the inhumane abuse Gul was subjected to and the edict given by Karzai, the perpetrators of these this horrendous acts were released by a three-judge tribunal, and the justice system exhibited yet another epic failure in protecting a young woman. Gul was a persona non grata to the secret court hearing that effected the release of those who tortured her. Atrocities against the women of Afghanistan are still business as usual.
Amazingly, Afghan women’s rights have been extolled as one of the great, perhaps only, successes of America’s longest war. But the reality is very different; true justice and progress for Afghan women in Afghanistan remains painfully elusive.
Time and time again during my five years working in Afghanistan, I have witnessed how the abysmal justice system in Afghanistan remains weighted in men’s favor. There have been so many instances where women in Afghanistan are treated as guilty until proven innocent for “moral crimes” such as running away, rape, and adultery. Changes have to happen, both in the justice system and within the culture, to improve the status of Afghan women for now and in the future.
But for now, the justice system in Afghanistan continues to be grossly calibrated against women culturally, procedurally, and often legislatively.
Article 26 of the newly proposed Criminal Procedure Code specifically will not allow women to testify against other relatives in Afghanistan. For people like Sahar Gul, this would mean she could not testify against the in-laws who viciously and repeatedly abused her. Gul’s brother and uncle, who rescued her from this treatment and wheelbarrowed her away from her basement torture chamber to safety, would also not be able to testify against the perpetrators. In the best of legal circumstances, without these crucial testimonies, Gul would ultimately be forced back to the same people who inflicted this violence on her.
Sahar Gul’s story was given international attention, and her fight for justice will continue. Tragically, her situation is not unique. For every Sahar Gul who is able to bring her attackers to task, there are thousands more women who cannot.
In 2011 Karzai granted the first presidential pardon for a moral crime conviction to Gulnaz that allowed for her immediate release. As a result of this historic act, an office was created within the attorney general’s office that allows women who are victims of violence to report the incidents. While the office has been operational, it is slowly being utilized.
While, relatively speaking, Sahar Gul was lucky to have male family members bring the case to the police, thousands more women suffer in silence, unable to go to the authorities for help. Nothing will change for them until they are given some protections within the justice system. One of the fastest ways this can be done is to ensure that more women enter and work effectively in the police force. It is difficult to understand just how very hard it is for a woman to take that huge first step of giving a complaint against an abuser.
If a women reports a crime, often the first question the male police officer asks is, where is your husband? Where is your brother? The same thing happens in the courts. Men, whose presence outweighs women a hundred times over in the justice system, will almost discount a woman the moment they walk in alone to file a complaint.
Even if Sahar Gul had the ability to go to a station and report the crimes against her, it would have been unlikely she would have been taken seriously.
Much of the dehumanization of women comes from cultural barriers. The influence it has on the justice and legal framework of Afghanistan and the effect it has on women’s ability to access justice can be crippling; it plays a hugely significant role as to why Afghan women are not getting the justice they are entitled to.
Giving women the ability to report crimes against them to another woman is a potential huge step in opening access to justice for women. It may encourage more women to take the first legal step by having a female police officer available in their communities to hear their cases. Their presence may give women the confidence to file a complaint, and they will also be critical as first responders to cases of abuse.
In a system that is weighted against women, any evidence, and credible witnesses, will help an Afghan woman get closer to justice. Sahar Gul’s injures were so severe and so obvious that there was no doubt abuse had taken place, but for other women it is not as clear.
When other women like Sahar Gul make a report to the police, culturally, a male police officer is not able to observe those injuries on her body. However, a woman police officer can. She can see this physical evidence, be a witness to it, and make that part of the petition, while it would be impossible for a male police officer to do the same.
In court, this account and witness may be the only evidence that a woman is allowed to present to corroborate abuse.
I have been witness to so many cases where a woman will go to court and testify to abuse, all the while being chastised by judges for reporting the case in the first instance.
If Afghanistan insists on being a signatory to international conventions for upholding human rights, then it needs to be held accountable for protecting women’s rights. At every level of the Afghan justice system, there must be changes and mechanisms put in place that allow women to receive justice, report crimes, and prosecute cases. A critical mass of women entering the Afghan police force where Afghan women can access them may be a good step.
For the thousands, maybe millions, of women like Sahar Gul in Afghanistan who had suffered from abuse every day, something has to done to give them any hope of justice. Having more women police is not the only answer, but it’s a critical start that is desperately needed.