Sexual harassment of women in Afghanistan has been, and remains, a hidden challenge. Traditional patriarchal of Afghan communities and institutionalization of harassment has forced women to silently tolerate harassment. Afghan women routinely suffer dispossession of individual liberties, violations of rights, abuse and rape. Reporting their experiences in a formal manner is considered a disgrace, and when they do they are rarely taken seriously by authorities. Society calls into question the dignity and honor of Afghan women who are brave enough to cast light on the harassment they suffer and petition for justice. All too often, blame is put on the women being harassed as the instigator of the behavior disturbing social order. As a result, societal justification of harassment only exacerbates this discriminatory behavior and violence against women.
Society calls into question the dignity and honor of Afghan women who are brave enough to cast light on the harassment they suffer and petition for justice.
Catcalling, an immediate violation of women’s dignity, in the streets and bazaar is a common form of harassment. As men persist on catcalling, a woman’s individual and social liberty is eroded, as evidenced by her reduced mobility to leave the home. Harassment has a profound psychological impact on women. It makes their work and presence in society challenging, and over time undermines their character, self-esteem and confidence in social activities.
Harassment is a deplorable social action against women experienced in every sphere of life. A report published by the Women's Affairs Ministry in 2016 ranked harassment of women as the third most important factor in women's under-representation in the workplace. According to the report, most women do not submit complaints and opt to remain silent when harassed, fearing job termination or harm to their dignity. The Afghan Women and Children Research Institute reported that on average 90% of women have been harassed at least once in public, 87% were sexually harassed at work place, and 91% in educational facilities. Similarly, a smaller research project conducted in the Daikondy Province by the Organization for the Development of Youth, shows that 85% of the 115 women interviewed suffered sexual harassment in their lives.
Most women do not submit complaints and opt to remain silent when harassed, fearing job termination or harm to their dignity.
Sexual harassment of women in justice and judicial organizations is a serious concern of women's rights activists and officials in this sector. According to Latifah Sultani, head of the Women's Rights Office at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), cases of harassment of women prisoners by judges in Badambagh Women’s Prison, have been registered with the AIHRC. In an interview conducted by AIHRC, convicted women stated that detainees were harassed by police officers and judicial authorities. Zahra (pseudonym), who was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment and had been detained in the Badambagh Women's Prison said, "On the way to the police station, police officers touched parts of my body in the car and when we reached the police station, one of the officers asked me to go to his room. I warned them that I would scream and shout if they tried to approach me. They were like hungry wolves. I stayed up all night until they transferred me to Kabul police headquarters in the morning.”
Meanwhile, many attempts have been made to recruit female officers for the sake of women prisoners and suspects. These attempts have not been successful as there are only a small number of female officers within the police force. In addition, female prisoners have no means to document sexual abuse or raise evidence based complaints. There is nobody to testify to the act of harassment.Are the actions that have been undertaken by the active governmental, national and international institutions in this sector able to solve the challenges of women who are struggling daily with persecution and harassment? It is obvious that the answer is no.
Although the current government's efforts to criminalize sexual harassment are promising, enforcement and the rule of law remain a serious concern for the people of Afghanistan. Enforcement of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) in 2009, Law on Anti-harassment of Women and Children in 2017 and the new penal code in 2018 are among the measures that could ensure the serious consideration of cases of sexual harassment of women.
Although the current government's efforts to criminalize sexual harassment are promising, enforcement and the rule of law remain a serious concern for the people of Afghanistan.
This law is not free from defects and in some cases it is at the expense of women. Due to traditional structures and extremist mentalities, we are still facing many challenges in the implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women. However, such laws can be a ray of hope for the elimination of violence against women, especially sexual harassment. The challenge is whether or not women will have adequate, if any, access to these anti-harassment support systems and mechanisms. The institutions designed to address these cases have failed to take them seriously and, in many instances, have harbored contempt against the victims, casting doubt on whether victims will have access to services.
Consequently, there is a need for institutions to be involved in awareness raising campaigns for the public, especially women, regarding harassment and existing facilities to support women. All of society must work together to create a healthy and appropriate social environment for women, to undertake serious systematic steps in changing cultural norms and strengthening gender equality. In addition, there is a serious need for professional training for state officials, especially the police, judges and prosecutors on how to properly respond to these issues. It is imperative for the government to take practical measures to effectively combat the culture of impunity of government officials for sexual harassment against women and to monitor the process of addressing harassment cases in relevant institutions.
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