A country scarred by war and violence
War has prevailed in Afghanistan for decades. In 2020, this was estimated to be one of the deadliest armed conflicts in the world. After the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001, the international community had a strong influence on the country’s politics, but it did not initiate the processes needed to come to terms with these conflicts. Former mujahideen who had carried out a bloody civil war in the 90s are now once again in government positions. This marked the return of political Islam and a rapid increase in criminality and corruption. The population is extremely poor and the number of internally displaced people continues to grow. Almost 80% of adults have some form of physical, functional, sensory or other impairment.
Women’s rights: hard-fought freedoms
After 2001, female activists fought for and achieved significant legislative progress but the government decrees on women’s rights failed to become lived reality for most women. Patriarchal structures, religious fundamentalism, corruption and the all-prevailing insecurity prevent this. Women living in conflict-torn regions, in extremely poor families, or in refugee/IDP camps are those with the least influence over their own life. As a woman it can be literally life-threatening to openly pursue an alternative life vision such as independence or homosexuality. Activists are worried about the consequences of the peace negotiations with the Taliban and the withdrawal of international troops.
Eight facts on women’s rights in Afghanistan:
1. Women’s rights in the Afghan legal system
In Afghanistan there are overlaps and contradictions between governmental laws, religious rules, and local conflict resolution mechanisms. A majority of all disputes are handled by village councils. Even when women are involved in conflicts, their rights are generally not considered when it comes to solving them. The deciding factors are local power relations, traditions, misogynist interpretations of Islam, and reconciliation between the families involved. Activists are working towards incorporating women’s rights into the religious, societal and governmental norms by means of a feminist interpretation of Islam. International feminist initiatives are supporting these efforts.
2. Forced and child marriages are widespread
Decisions about marriages are taken by the whole family, rarely involving the girls who are actually affected. About one in three girls are forced into marriage before they reach 18. As one measure to help change this, activists are campaigning for an increase in the statutory minimum marriage age for girls from 16 to 18. Another aim is the obligatory governmental registration of marriages. Establishing liaisons via marriage can have significant economic effects for both families, which is one of the reasons for forced and child marriages.
3. Rape seen as adultery
Sexualised violence is frequently treated the same as consensual adultery, which is illegal under Afghan law. This leads to women being judged and sentenced as perpetrators (of adultery) when they were raped. Activists in the larger cities have succeeded in reducing this legal scandal significantly. However, there is still risk of intra-family violence and even of so-called ‘honour killings’ in the wake of a rape or (suspicions of) an adulterous relationship. In general, violence committed against women within forced or child marriages is not being recorded sufficiently.
4. Safe houses very rare
Currently there are only 27 women’s safe houses operating in the whole of the country, and these are not secured for the future. Demand from women and girls for this type of protection far exceeds their capacity. The Council of Europe calls for one place in a safe house per 7500 residents. This would equate to 5120 places in Afghanistan. As a comparison: Germany also does not fulfil the CoE demands, but at least it does have 350 safe houses.
5. Increasing political participation by women
The participation of women in politics and the government and judiciary has increased significantly since 2001. Quotas ensure representation in the national and district parliaments, where the proportions of female delegates are now 25 and 27 per cent respectively. According to figures from the State Prosecutor, the proportion of women employed in the judiciary system has increased from 3 to 20 per cent. Across the country, 21 per cent of all defence counsel are women, and 265 judges are female, out of a total of 1951. However, during the peace negotiations with the Taliban, female participation was significantly less: very few women took part in the talks, a fact which attracted protest from women’s groups.
6. Women’s rights activists face extreme dangers
Waves of targeted killings are taking place. Activists have repeatedly demanded that the President fulfil his promise of quick and efficient protection for human rights defenders. They are also calling on the international community to help ensure this protection, as required by UN Resolution 1325.
7. High rates of infant and maternal mortality
Although maternal mortality could be reduced continually since 1990, at 638 cases per 100,000 live births, it is still one of the highest in the world. As a comparison: the figure in Germany is 4-5 cases per 100,000. The causes of these deaths include young age, vitamin deficiency and poor medical care during pregnancy: Twenty per cent of the women became a mother before they turned 18, and only 54 per cent of the births were attended by a midwife or doctor. The rate of infant mortality also continues to be one of the highest in the world: four out of ten children die before their first birthday.
8. Very restricted access to school education for girls
Although the proportion of girls aged 10 who go to school is about 60 per cent, it falls to just over 30 per cent by the time they reach the age of 15. And once they are married, very few girls are permitted to continue their education. Older girls, girls from families with a low income, and girls living in rural areas are all less likely to continue their schooling. Statistically speaking, school attendance is even less probable for girls with physical impairments: 80 per cent of these girls do not go to school. The reasons are generally discrimination, transport difficulties or other problems of access.
“My husband now treats me respectfully. You have performed a miracle for me.”
Sohra, client at Medica Afghanistan
(Status of: 2021)
In the past year, Medica Afghanistan trained 157 staff from the police, justice and prison sectors on the topics of women’s rights, protection from violence, and the ban on so-called ‘virginity tests’.
In 2020, Medica Afghanistan advised more than 1,900 women affected by violence regarding psychosocial and legal issues.
Project region: Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Shari, Samanganand Baghlan
- psychosocial counselling, legal and family counselling for women affected by violence
- Training courses for healthcare professionals, police and judicial sector staff
- Public awareness work on gender-based and women’s rights, political advocacy work
Partner organisation: Medica Afghanistan – Women Support Organisation
Funding and funders:
German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
Federal Foreign Office
Foundation Anne-Marie Schindler
Source: Annual Report 2020
1. Psychosocial counselling program
Group and individual sessions for women
In Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Samangan and Baghlan, Medica Afghanistan offers counselling for women who are suffering from the mental or physical consequences of sexualised and other forms of violence. In regular group and individual sessions, women can process their trauma and find a new will to live.
Decentralised advice and counselling in hospitals
Medica Afghanistan has set up decentralised consultation rooms, making 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 specialist support. Additionally, in several hospitals, bedside counselling sessions can be provided.
Counselling by telephone for women affected by violence
In 2020, the counsellors at Medica Afghanistan also started to offer counselling by telephone for women from all over the country who are affected by violence and family conflict. Quick provision of this advice became urgently necessary during lockdowns imposed to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.
Feminist family counselling
Since 2018, Medica Afghanistan has been conducting feminist family counselling in individual and group sessions. This helps participants to deal with specific family conflicts, gender roles, and the destructive effects of violence. The counselling always focusses on the specific needs of the women affected.
Solidarity in women’s self-help groups
In order to help prevent violence, each year Medica Afghanistan sets up 12 new self-help groups. Led by former clients of Medica Afghanistan, the groups enable women to come together, speak about their problems, and find suitable solutions for family conflicts. At the same time, they experience the solidarity of the group, break out of their isolation, and strengthen their position within their family and neighbourhood.
2. Legal assistance project
Stress- and trauma-sensitive legal advice
The legal assistance project at Medica Afghanistan offers women free stress- and trauma-sensitive legal advice. Often this is the first time that women even realise they have any rights.
Legal representation for women affected by violence
The female lawyers represent women in court if they are being prosecuted, or if they are taking perpetrators to court – who are mostly male. In these cases, the most successful strategy has proven to be suing perpetrators for financial compensation – both to ensure the livelihood of the women affected and to prevent further acts of violence.
Compensation claims for sexualised violence
As they started in 2017 to apply this legal mechanism to cases of sexualised and family violence, Medica Afghanistan were pioneering a new approach. Now they are training more lawyers to ensure that even more affected women can receive compensation payments.
Legal representation in civil law cases
Furthermore, they also provide legal advice to women in civil affairs such as divorce and custody cases.
Mediation work with women and their families
Many women are put under pressure by authorities and families for a long time, until they withdraw their complaint. In these cases, social workers from Medica Afghanistan can mediate between women and their relatives to ensure that the needs and rights of the women are respected. In Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif there are special mediation rooms for this.
Preventing violence within families
When women are released from prison, social workers talk to their relatives in order to avoid family violence.
3. Training and awareness-raising
Trauma-sensitive healthcare work
Medica Afghanistan trains female specialists working in hospitals. They are often the first to come into contact with women affected by violence. The aim: a trauma-sensitive treatment for women who are suffering from the consequences of violence. Women doctors, nursing staff and midwives increase their knowledge of trauma and retraumatisation, psychosomatic illnesses and trauma-sensitive methods of examination and treatment.
Self-care to ensure sustainability
In order to avoid burnouts themselves, they are trained how to take care of themselves despite intense contact with severely stressed patients. This also includes avoiding secondary traumatisation – where the helpers themselves develop trauma symptoms. In order to ensure long-term impacts, Medica Afghanistan involves hospital managers in the training sessions.
Outreach for women’s rights
The impacts of work at Medica Afghanistan to ensure legally decreed women’s rights become everyday reality can be enhanced by training and educating people with wider influence in their communities. These include religious leaders and community elders, who are informed about the consequences of violence for entire families and village communities.
Training public servants on violence against women
Police officers and staff in the judicial system also receive training on the issue of women’s rights from Medica Afghanistan. Visible results include police referring more cases of domestic violence to the legal advice team at Medica Afghanistan.
Raising awareness among prison staff
Prison staff are also trained how to work with women affected by violence.
4. Political work
Political advocacy work for women’s rights
Hard-fought women’s rights are now under threat from hardliners in the government and from the peace negotiations with the Taliban. Political advocacy is therefore an important part of the work carried out by Medica Afghanistan.
Preserving the Elimination of Violence Law
The Elimination of Violence against Women Law (EVAW Law) passed in 2009 was a milestone in the struggle for women’s rights. Its opponents have tried many times, most recently in 2016, to abolish it or weaken it with reforms. In co-operation with national and international women’s and human rights organisations, Medica Afghanistan made a crucial contribution to preventing this and keeping the law in place.
Reforming family law
Similarly, the organisation has been striving for years to reform family law in the country, and significant improvements for women have been achieved.
Active against forced gynaecological examinations
Another issue where Medica Afghanistan is active is the abolishing of so-called ‘virginity tests’. These gynaecological examinations were actually made illegal in 2017 if they are carried out in a forced way, without the agreement of the woman and a court order. Nonetheless, forced examinations are still a regular part of routine investigations into suspicions of adultery, carried out on the instructions of police.
Demand for a comprehensive ban on virginity tests
Forced examinations can have extreme (re-)traumatising effects. And whether they are forced or agreed to, technically it is absurd to consider these tests as forensic verification of sexual intercourse. The results, in many cases, lead to the woman being socially stigmatised and suffering further violence, even so-called ‘honour killings’. Together with other human rights organisations, Medica Afghanistan is calling for a complete prohibition of this practice.
Networking and feminist action
Enhancing women’s rights together
Medica Afghanistan is cooperating with other Afghan initiatives and organisations such as the Afghan Women’s Network and the Afghanistan Legal Aid and Advocates Network (ALAAN), in order to enhance women’s rights.
International networking with women’s rights organisations
At an international level, and often mediated by medica mondiale, the activists at Medica Afghanistan are able to network with other women’s rights organisations in southeastern Europe, India, northern Iraq and African countries. Workshops and conferences enable them to establish contacts with other activists, sharing expertise, political strategies and experiences useful in their work.
Solidarity across borders
A robust network of women’s organisations does more than just enable the exchange of expertise: the experience of solidarity beyond borders is especially important.
Germany: Putting Afghanistan on the political agenda
In Germany we are working to ensure that Afghanistan continues to gain the public attention it needs and remains on the political agenda.