• Where media leads, advocacy must follow to protect Afghan women

Where media leads, advocacy must follow to protect Afghan women

10 June 2014

by M. Hussain Hasrat

Researcher M. Hussain Hasrat makes his case for consistent and coordinated advocacy

Human rights activism in Afghanistan has been enormously accelerated in recent years. This is evident in the open public debates about gender equality and women’s rights. Thanks to rights activists’ incredible efforts, elimination of violence against women has increasingly become a key demand of the Afghan women.

Cases of violence are also being widely reported by national and international media. Of the various types of physical, economic, sexual, verbal and psychological violence, the media have predominantly covered physical and sexual violence. This is perhaps due to the strong emotional response that the brutality of physical and sexual violence can attract. Such media stories are necessary in mobilizing public anger against this vicious phenomenon.

Once a researcher on the topic for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, I have regularly studied the various types of violence against women in Afghanistan. There were times when the heinous nature of physical and sexual crimes left me distraught for weeks.

However, despite the immediate emotions raised by such cases, we should not be distracted from the bigger picture issues and the longer term efforts. The women’s rights activism has mostly focused on awareness raising, education and reporting. Effective advocacy and tackling structural and cultural violence are, unfortunately, a small part of this. Absence of robust and cohesive nationwide advocacy efforts, compounded by opaque legal and judicial procedures has made the prospect of positive change in the lives of Afghan women a remote one.

A stronger bridge between women’s rights reporting and advocacy would help. Among recent cases of violence, the stories of Shakila and Sabira - one worse than the other - illustrate how the absence of longer term advocacy can fail Afghan women’s pursuit to secure justice.   

Shakila, a sixteen year old girl, was found dead in Bamyan province on Friday 27 January 2012. The incident happened in a house shared by Wahidi Behishty, a member of the Provincial Council, who was present at that time along with his wife, cousin and nephew.

Police and forensic investigations revealed that the Shakila was raped before being killed, contrary to Wahidi’s claim that Shakila had committed suicide. His influence and connections with some Parliamentarians disrupted the usual due process for more than two years. In the first six months, provincial authorities simply accepted Wahidi’s interpretation and the case was on the verge of closure.

However, the media coverage, supplemented by local and Kabul-based human rights defenders’ regular calls for justice, protests and social media activism, finally paid off. The court of appeal eventually sentenced one of the three suspects on May 21st this year to twenty years in jail, though the accessories were acquitted.

Given the unreliable judicial system, Wahidi’s influence in the government and the rather unsteady advocacy efforts, there is little guarantee that the court order will be implemented. In fact, should an appeal be called, Shakila’s family members are worried that there are chances for the reversal of due process.

In the case of Sabira, however, there was no trial at all. The fifteen year old girl was publically whipped by local Mullahs and strongmen two years ago in Ghazni. She was accused for ‘transgressing the honor of her family and relatives’. Charging her with having unlawful relations with a local tailor boy, Sabira was forced to confess what she may or may not have done, and then beaten up along with her parents.

In this instance, local pressure went against the victim.  Locals demonstrated outside the district governor's office to demand that the mullahs, taken in by the police, had delivered fair justice to Sabira and must be released.  The mullahs were released uncharged. After suffering insults and intimidation, an ostracized Sabira had to leave the village and ended up in a Kabul shelter for a year.

Afghan media reported this incident widely and termed it Mahakima-ye Sahraye, or desert trial. Rights activists also marched against it in the Kabul streets. However, given the involvement of a larger number of offenders i.e. the mob led by religious figures, a lack of clear legal provisions, and no advocacy efforts at the local level, the case was swept under the carpet. Sabira’s dishonored father returned to his village disappointed after months of banging on the doors of courts and human rights organisations in Kabul.

Shakila and Sabria’s cases both received a lot of media attention. There are many such cases that don’t make it to the public consciousness. Even if they do, in the absence of clear legal and judicial procedures and robust advocacy, there is little hope that justice will be secured. Rights groups need to strike the right balance between reporting and advocacy.