Katherine Tiedemann is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The everyday lives of Afghanistan’s some 16 million women are often forgotten or overlooked in the morass that is US involvement in Afghanistan. The news cycle revolves around helicopter crashes, numbers of Western troops being sent to the country, and US military fatality body counts – all critical issues to be sure, significant in justifying the US presence in the region and understanding the security conditions there.
But a gripping, somewhat out of the ordinary piece in today’s Los Angeles Times caught my eye. The piece details in forceful language the sad stories that come out of the few women’s shelters in Afghanistan. David Zucchino writes:
Women have virtually no options in Afghan tribal culture. It would be scandalous for a woman to live alone or pursue a job on her own. They are dependent on men for food, clothing, shelter and status — and often must give up their children when seeking divorce. Girls have to be at least 16 to get married, but the law is widely ignored. Most women who reach the shelter are…old enough and bold enough to dare to escape; often they flee to police stations or a local human rights group.
Traditionally, police returned abused women to their husbands. But since “family response units” staffed by female officers were established in some police stations in 2006, police in Kabul have been more willing to steer women to shelters. Still, police in rural areas routinely return abused women to their husbands, rights groups say…
Most abused Afghan women never reach shelters. Some commit suicide, occasionally by self-immolation. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has documented six such cases a month this year, a fraction of the total in a country where such tragedies are rarely reported, especially in rural areas.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan recently released a detailed report on violence against women in Afghanistan whose table of contents alone jerks at my heartstrings: sections include “When tradition suppresses women’s voices; impact on women’s professional lives; is rape a crime in Afghanistan?; when injustice becomes the norm.”
The report’s recommendations are admirable – but my cynical side has to ask how realistic it is to expect the government of Afghanistan to take actions like “adopt[ing] and implement[ing] affirmative action laws and policies aimed at redressing the current gender-imbalance.”
But we should also listen to Afghan women, as Robert Greenwald pointed out yesterday. Providing refuge for battered women in Afghanistan is one way to help, as the some 750 women who have sought refuge in the privately-funded Family Guidance Center in Kabul have shared.
But there are 1,637 domestic violence shelters in the United States – for some 150 million women – and only six to cover Afghanistan’s 16 million women. For those doing the division, that’s one shelter per every some 90,000 US women and one per every 2.7 million Afghan women – clearly there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Let’s hope Karzai’s government keeps “trying to address women’s rights“.
— Katherine Tiedemann