How many of our daughters will be allowed to die? Rape, murder and impunity in Afghanistan

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On January 27, 2012, a 16 year old girl named Shakila was raped and murdered in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan. She was killed in the home of Wahidi Behishti, a member of provincial council in Bamyan who has so far not been prosecuted for the crime.

According to Ingibjorg Gisladottir, the Country Representative of UN Women in Afghanistan, "Many cases of serious violence against women that are not properly investigated, as in the case of Shakila, have in common that the victim is a young girl from a weak social background but the perpetrator on the other hand has affiliation with or is protected by someone with influences at a higher level -- in government, police or with the local warlord."

A 2009 UN report, 'Silence is Violence: End the abuse of women in Afghanistan,' reveals research done by UNAMA Human Rights which found that 39 per cent of rape cases analysed in the Northern region were perpetrated by men with powerful ties which enabled them to receive immunity from arrest.

At the time of Shakila's death, the only people in the home were Behishti, his wife and his nephew Abdul Wahab. There were several forensics failings in the case, including the fact that fingerprints were never taken from the three people present at the time of the murder to be compared with the fingerprints on the gun. Shakila's body was also removed from the scene and taken to hospital without notifying police and a judicial panel in May 2012 found that evidence from the crime scene was removed and misplaced deliberately.

Behisti's bodyguard and Shakila's brother in law Qurban, was not present at the time of the murder, but was none the less charged with the crime. Shakila's sister Suraya, claimed in a statement to the Court of Appeal in Bamyan Province, that Behisti had told her that if she did not involve him in the case Qurban would be set free.

Behisti, who admits to having been only seven meters away at the time of Shakila's death, claims that he did not hear any shots and that Shakila killed herself. This directly contradicts the autopsy report which found evidence of rape and which ruled the death a murder.

Malalai Joya, an author and former Parliamentarian in the National Assembly of Afghanistan, is calling for the immediate prosecution of Behisti to the full extent of the Afghan law. Joya claims "fellow warlords like Sayed Hussain Anwari, Alami Balki and other members of Parliament are defending Wahidi Behishti" and hindering due process.

Gisladottir explains, "The culture of impunity is the legacy of 30 years of conflict where no one has been held accountable for serious atrocities and crimes committed against women and children and other innocent people."

The 2009 UN report reveals that unpunished crimes, such as in the rape and murder of Shakila, are the result of a political climate in Afghanistan where injustice is the norm.

Many such cases exist, such as Sara, whose rape was ordered by a Commander in 2005 who watched as she was gang raped by three men who used a bayonet in the attack and also raped her with the bayonet and then sent her into the street bleeding and unclothed. Her husband, Dilawar, petitioned relentlessly for justice until the men involved received sentences of 11 years each, only to be pardoned by President Karzai after serving only two years of their sentences. After international pressure eventually led to the arrest of the Commander involved, Dilawar was murdered.

In 2008 there was a case where the son of a Member of Parliament in the Saripal province was accused of raping a 13 year old girl. When the victim's uncle sought justice, he was threatened and fired from his job. The dispute was reportedly resolved through the practice of baad, in which the victims' family gave a girl to the accusers' family to settle the matter.

In the Province of Paktya, a seven year old girl was sexually abused by a 25 year old married man and it was decreed that the child victim should marry her rapist when she grew up.

"Women in our culture unfortunately are a thing. You can buy it, sell it, and kill it," says Abdullah Barat, a civil activist from Bamyan Province who has been demanding justice in the case of Shakila. "Because Behishti is very powerful, innocent people go to jail instead," explains Barat who organized several protests including one on September 10th last year. "My daughter's birthday is the 10th of September. I don't want my daughter to become a Shakila. We have no choice but to raise our voices and protest, if we don't, Shakila will become like the cases of hundreds of others girls and women, never going anywhere and forgotten."

For his role in organizing protests to raise awareness about the Shakila case, Barat was attacked and abducted by two gunmen. "I managed to run away and save my life. The police later caught the two men who attacked me and one of them was the son of Behishti's brother." Fearing for his safety and the safety of his family, Barat fled to India and is now in Canada.

"Genuine political will at highest level is imperative to bring about changes in the dire situation of Afghan women and the pervasive violence against women," says Gisladottir who believes that implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law is key in shifting the epidemic of violence and discrimination against women.

The EVAW law was passed by a legislative decree by the President in 2009. It has not yet however been ratified by parliament. The law criminalizes 23 acts of violence against women, including child marriage, forced marriage, physical abuse and rape.

On May 18, Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi, made a push to have parliamentary ratification of the EVAW law. The short debate that ensued drew criticism from Afghan feminists who feared the move had put the law in jeopardy by introducing it to a conservative parliament and provoked protests from male university students in Kabul who chanted "death to democracy."

In a statement issued on August 9, Canadian Senator Mobina Jaffer -- who represents the province of British Columbia in the Senate where she chairs the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights -- declared: "Canada, along with the rest of the international community, has great expectations for the Afghan government on living up to their international and domestic obligations on women's rights. An absolutely critical step in achieving this is ratification of the EVAW law within the Afghan parliament as it will clearly indicate the government's commitment to ending the violence women face every day in Afghan society."

Gisladottir stresses, "If hatred crimes against women are allowed to continue unpunished it will seriously affect the work for women's rights and jeopardize all the gains made till date."

It remains to be seen what will come of the EVAW law and what will happen in the case of Shakila who only passed sixteen springs of her life, but almost two years after her rape and murder, still has no justice. The violence inflicted upon her goes unpunished and we must ask ourselves, how many of our daughters will be allowed to die before equality is empowered to protect them.   

 

Samantha Sarra is a journalist and activist.

Photo: Ferdous Samim

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