The importance of addressing the root causes and cultural factors in the pursuit for eliminating gender-based violence in Afghanistan cannot be under estimated.
In March of 2018, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission published a report summarising the current state of violence against women in the country. According to the report, 4,340 acts of violence against Afghan women were reported in 2017. Of the cases that were reported, 32.7% involved some form of physical violence, 5.3% involved sexual violence, and 30.3% involved verbal and psychological violence. In November of 2017, the Delegation of the European Union to Afghanistan voiced their concerns regarding the high percentages of gender-based violence in Afghanistan. At the time that this statement was made, there had already been 3 778 reported cases of violence against women. Within the span of one month, 562 new instances of gender-based violence were reported. The Delegation of the European Union to Afghanistan was right to express their consternation, as rates of violence against women are increasing in number. These statistics indicate a downward spiral of progress that must be addressed immediately.
According to an article by The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, one of the most prominent contributing factors to gender-based violence in the country is the normalisation of the acts themselves. Another contributing factor is the prevalence of cultural norms which dictates what a woman should and should not do. According to the AIHRC, 626 (or about 14%) of reported cases of violence against women in 2017 were in response to a woman breaking some sort of cultural norm. According to the United States Institute of Peace, breaking cultural norms can involve anything from a woman exhibiting independence, attempting to obtain an education, speaking out in a way that is deemed unacceptable by her family or community, or attempting to escape a forced marriage. If a woman is tried for committing a “moral crime”, that woman may be subjected to another form of sexual assault in the form of unreliable and invasive virginity testing. These procedures are carried out by the very individuals whose purpose it is to ensure that justice is delivered.
In order to combat acts of violence in response to women breaking cultural norms, existing awareness campaigns should invested in and more need to be created. One such campaign, established by the Afghan Ministry of Justice and two local NGOs in 2017, featured live drama performances and discussion seminars in order to draw attention to the prevalence of various forms of gender-based violence in the country. The European Union must ensure that at least a portion of development and humanitarian aid is invested in campaigns such as this one, which can effectively help change the perceptions that surround Afghan women. Slowly but surely, women will be viewed as valuable members of society rather than a burden to her family and community. The European Union must also renew their support for improving school infrastructure in the country, which will also foster public awareness in addition to improving literacy rates. According to the Central Asia Institute, education is the best tool for combating violence.
The European Union must also take advantage of the influential position that they hold when offering support and humanitarian aid to the Afghan government in order to push for the comprehensive implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law. Although forced and underage marriage was made illegal under this law, its enforcement- particularly regarding these aspects- is inconsistent. If this were to change, factors that begin a sequence of events which inevitably lead to numerous manifestations of gender-based violence could be effectively eliminated. Forced marriage and underage marriage make women more susceptible to being on the receiving end of domestic violence, which can exacerbate mental health issues and can result in attempted or completed suicides.
In Afghanistan, women account for an estimated 80% of suicides. Forced marriage is the most common reason utilised to explain this phenomenon. This statistic dramatically highlights how rampant this practice is throughout the country, as well as the persistence of child marriage to this day. According to UNICEF, one-third of Afghan girls are married off before their 18th birthday. In order to further ensure the comprehensive implementation of the EVAW law and combat child marriages, the EU must urge the Afghan government to provide facilities where marriages can be registered- particularly in rural areas of the country- as has been proposed by the AIHRC. The establishment and strict monitoring of such facilities will effectively decrease the number of child marriages, which will subsequently decrease rates of violence.
When it comes to combating violence, especially gender-based violence, there must be a focus on prevention instead of addressing these crimes after they have been committed. Although criminalising acts of violence is undoubtedly necessary, this strategy does not address the root causes or the cultural factors that contribute to these acts being committed in the first place. From this point forward, the European Union must strive to be proactive rather than reactive.