A new Afghan law is to allow men to attack their wives, children and sisters without fear of judicial punishment, undoing years of slow progress in tackling violence in a country plagued by “honor” killings, forced marriage and vicious domestic abuse.
The small, but significant, change to Afghanistan’s criminal prosecution code bans relatives of an accused person from testifying against them. Most violence against women in Afghanistan is within the family, so the law would effectively silence victims as well as most potential witnesses to their suffering.
The law has been passed by parliament, but is awaiting the signature of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
“It is a travesty [that] this is happening,” said Manizha Naderi, director of charity and campaign group Women for Afghan Women. “It will make it impossible to prosecute cases of violence against women... The most vulnerable people won’t get justice now.”
Under the new law, prosecutors could never come to court with cases like that of Sahar Gul, a child bride whose in-laws chained her in a basement and starved, burned and whipped her when she refused to work as a prostitute for them. Women like 31-year-old Sitara, whose nose and lips were sliced off by her husband at the end of last year, could never take the stand against their attackers.
Honor killings by fathers and brothers who disapprove of a woman’s behavior would be almost impossible to punish. Forced marriage and the sale or trading of daughters to end feuds or settle debt would also be largely beyond the control of the law in a country where prosecution of abuse is already rare.
It is common in Western legal systems to excuse people from testimony that might incriminate their spouse, but it is a very narrow exception, with little resemblance to the blanket ban planned in Afghanistan.
Human Rights Watch said it would “let batterers of women and girls off the hook.”
The change is in a section of Afghanistan’s criminal code titled “Prohibition of Questioning an Individual as a Witness.” Others covered by the ban are underage children, doctors and defense lawyers for the accused.
Afghan senators originally wanted a milder version of the law that would prevent relatives from being legally obliged to take the stand in a case in which they did not want to testify, but both houses of parliament eventually passed a draft banning all testimony.
As most Afghans live in walled compounds — shared only with their extended families — this covers most witnesses to violence in the home.
The bill has been sent to Karzai, who must decide whether to sign it into force. After failing to block the change in parliament, campaigners plan to throw their weight behind shaming the president into suspending the new law.
“We will ask the president not to sign until the article is changed, we will put a lot of pressure on him,” said Selay Ghaffar, director of the shelter and advocacy group Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan.
She said activists hoped to repeat the success of a campaign in 2009 that forced Karzai to soften a family law enshrining marital rape as a husband’s right.
However, that was five years ago and since then, Karzai has presided over a strengthening of conservative forces. In the past year alone, parliament blocked a law to curb violence against women and cut the quota for women on provincial councils, while the Afghan Ministry of Justice floated a proposal to bring back stoning as a punishment for adultery.