Continuing fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, a phase of reconstruction began in Afghanistan that sparked hope for a better future. Afghanistan is still a long way from becoming a stable state, where women can enjoy equal rights and live in safety. Today, after more than 19 years of international military intervention, the picture is a sobering one: 2019 was the sixth year in a row that the number of civilian casualties has exceeded 10,000. Documenting the impact of the war on civilians for more than a decade, the UN found that in 2019 the number of civilian casualties had surpassed 100,000.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan – violence on the rise

Economic problems, decline in international support and increase in poverty are a lethal development given the already dangerous situation women and girls are facing. The revitalisation of fundamentalist forces and is jeopardising the achievements made in the field of women’s rights.

There are recurrent instances of lynchings or stonings, particularly in families and village communities. Women are poisoned, tortured, oppressed. Laws to prevent these kinds of incidents, such as the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law do exist. But, in practice, the dominance of traditional justice systems often prevents their consistent application.

Frequent consequences of the violent repression and disenfranchisement of women in Afghanistan include:
psychosomatic illnesses, depression and even suicide. In spite of their difficult and extremely dangerous situations, more and more women are making their voice heard – against injustice and for political representation in their country.

"My husband now treats me with respect, you have done a miracle for me."
Sohra, client of Medica Afghanistan


Eight facts on women’s rights in Afghanistan

  1. Forced marriages: UN figures report 59 per cent of all marriages as forced. Unicef assumes in a report from 2018 that at least one in three girls will be married before they turn 18.
  2. Everyday violence against women: According to figures from 2017, 51 percent of women between 15 and 49 experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexualised violence at least once in their lifetime. 46 percent oft hem experienced violence during the last 12 months before the survey.
  3. Imprisonment for „moral crimes“: According to a Human Rights Watch report (2012) half of all  imprisoned women and almost all of the imprisoned girls are serving sentences for “moral crimes: they are charged with adultery, although in most cases they are victims of rape or forced prostitution.
  4. Suicide as the only way out: In hardly any other country in the world do women live more dangerously than in Afghanistan. Beating, rape and humiliation are part of everyday life. Self-immolation is unfortunately a common way to commit suicide in Afghanistan and many Afghan women are driven to this as a last resort to escape overwhelming psychological and physical violence. Globally, more men commit suicide than women, but in Afghanistan it is estimated that 80 percent of suicide attempts are done by women.
  5. Equal rights usually only on paper: According to the law to combat violence against women (EVAW-Law) on paper women actually have equal rights. However, in practice, judges seldom apply the law. For Afghan women, life outside the family is almost unthinkable.
  6. High maternal mortality: On average, there are 5.3 pregnancies per woman. 20 percent of women give birth before they turn 18. 59 percent of births are supervised by midwives or doctors. Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world – an estimated 1.291 cases per 100,000 live births. The causes of this maternal mortality include young age, vitamin deficiency and poor medical care during pregnancy. The infant mortality rate is also one of the highest in the world - 62 out of 1000 children die before their fifth birthday.
  7. Low literacy rate: Only about 30 percent of women are literate compared to 55 percent of men.
  8. Forced Virginity-Tests: So-called “virginity tests” continue to be carried out and ordered by police officers, judges and lawyers, even though the Afghan Penal Code has forbidden forced gynaecological examinations since 2017. These tests form part of the routine when investigating sexualised violence or “moral crimes” such as sexual intercourse outside of marriage.

„I am so glad that you all are there who help women like me.“
Sahar S. *, client of Medica Afghanistan
(* name changed) 

(Last updated: 2020)

Psychosocial group session by Medica Afghanistan. Copyright: Lizette Potgieter
Psychosocial group session by Medica Afghanistan.

Practical examples:

901 women and girls received legal support from Medica Afghanistan, including free advice and legal representation.

1,936 women and girls took part in one-to-one, group and emergency counselling sessions from Medica Afghanistan.

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Project region: Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Shari, Samangan

Project Priorities:

  • training and competence building for staff in the healthcare, police and judicial sectors
  • psychosocial counselling, family counselling and legal advice
  • establishment and support of self-help groups
  • advocacy against forced gynaecological examinations
  • public awareness work on gender-based violence and women’s rights

Partner organisation: Medica Afghanistan – Women Support Organisation

Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ GmbH)
Federal Foreign Office
Donations/own resources


Source: annual report 2019

Overview of all partner organisations of medica mondiale

Counselling Center Medica Afghanistan. Copyright: Lizette Potgieter
Counselling Center Medica Afghanistan.

Psychosocial counselling programme

  • In several Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, counsellors from Medica Afghanistan offer counselling for women who are suffering from the mental or physical consequences of sexualised and other forms of violence. Regular conversation groups and individual counselling sessions help them deal with their trauma and find a new lease of life.
  • Medica Afghanistan set up consultation rooms at key locations of throughout the Afghan capital Kabul. This makes it easier for as many women as possible to find a protected space near their home where they can come to meet others and benefit from psychosocial support.
  • To ensure sustainability, Medica Afghanistan developed a new concept in 2014: under the guidance of former Medica Afghanistan clients, women come together in selfhelp groups where they can discuss their problems and experiences of violence and exchange views on their rights. This in turn strengthens the autonomy of the clients who set up these groups, as they see that they themselves can be agents of change.


Legal assistance project

  • The legal assistance project run by Medica Afghanistan offers general legal advice to women and provides female prisoners with criminal defence in court. The project’s female Afghan lawyers are committed to ensuring a fair trial for the women. Additionally, they also provide legal advice in civil affairs such as divorce and custody cases. Medica Afghanistan’s lawyers and social workers also help to mediate between women and their relatives to mitigate family conflicts. Many women are imprisoned as a result of such conflicts escalating, so this mediation work helps to prevent court cases in advance.
  • Mediation rooms in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif offer a place for families to receive counselling.

Political commitment

  • In view of threatened women’s rights, cooperation with governmental agencies and political advocacy are essential components. The central political call of Medica Afghanistan: To enforce the statutory rights of women in everyday life.
  • In addition Medica Afghanistan is campaigning  against so-called virginity tests, forced gynaecological examinations,. Although this practice is prohibited, police and judiciary continue to order these examinations, which can have a traumatising impact for the women concerned. In 2018 Medica Afghanistan hosted a conference in this regard.
  • So Medica Afghanistan is campaigning among politicians and in society at large for the implementation and realisation of equal rights for women in Afghanistan.
  • Medica Afghanistan is working together with national and international women’s and human rights organisations to achieve the enforcement of new laws to combat violence against women (EVAW Law). In December 2014 Medica Afghanistan organised a conference concerning this law. The organisation is also working to achieve other aims, such as reforming family law and ending the practices of forced and child marriages.
  • In Germany, we are working to ensure that Afghanistan continues to receive public attention and remains on the political agenda.
  • In 2019, a network meeting of Medica Afghanistan staff members with women's rights activists from India and northern Iraq took place. As women's rights activists in a society that makes women and girls responsible for the violence inflicted upon them, they share similar challenges. In this regard, they exchanged views on various political issues. A strong network of women’s organisations is not only helpful for the exchange of experience, but also increases the political leverage of each member.

Training for medical and psychosocial professionals

  • Medica Afghanistan offers training programmes for female professionals who work in medical and psychosocial professions. The objective: to ensure an improved, trauma-sensitive approach to health care for women who suffer from violence.
  • Afghan women doctors, nursing staff and midwives learn about trauma and retraumatisation, psychosomatic illnesses and trauma-sensitive methods of examination and treatment. Another important aspect covered during the training is how to avoid overload at work. Participants learn how to preserve their own strength despite intense contact with traumatised patients and how to avoid secondary traumatisation – where the helpers themselves develop trauma symptoms. In addition, Medica Afghanistan offers lectures in the hospitals to raise awareness among male staff of the special issues faced by women.

Public education

  • To prevent violence against women by law, Medica Afghanistan has set itself the object of informing society and the legal community about the EVAW law and campaigning for genuine acceptance.
  • Medica Afghanistan specifically targets forced and child marriages, educating families, judges and the public about their consequences. In September 2009 the organisation risked a particularly proactive measure: working together with the Afghan Ministry of Islamic Affairs, 36 spiritual leaders (mullahs) from in and around Kabul were educated about children’s rights and legal marriages. A second such workshop was then held in Herat in May 2010.
  • To raise awareness of violence against women and its consequences Medica Afghanistan produces radio programmes with interviews and reports on the topic of “Psychological health”.
  • Medica Afghanistan carries out trainings for police staff on the topics of human rights and violence against women. Results are visible with police referring more cases of domestic violence to the legal advice team at Medica Afghanistan. Also prison staff gets informed about regulations governing the treatment of prisoners under binding international law and their awareness of the special situation regarding imprisoned women is raised.
  • Since 2018 Medica Afghanistan offers feminist family counselling. In individual and group sessions, participants explore gender roles and the destructive consequences of violence. The training closes with an agreement on achievable goals to prevent future violence.

(Status of 2019)