Shutting down the EVAW debate: a setback for women’s rights in Afghanistan?

MPs in Afghanistan shut down a recent debate on violence against women. DiA blogger Courtenay Howe reports on the Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women and the implications of its implementation

EVAW was enacted through a decree by President Karzai in 2009

EVAW was enacted through a decree by President Karzai in 2009

On 18 May, a debate held in the Afghanistan parliament on the Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women (EVAW) ended after just 15 minutes following calls from traditionalists for the law to be scrapped.

EVAW was enacted through a decree by President Karzai in 2009 – but it failed to gain MPs’ approval. It outlines 22 forms of violence against women and mandates punishment for those who commit acts such rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage and denial of the right to education.

The law is featured in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, which outlines the commitments made by the Afghan government and the international community towards the development of the country, as one of the indicators of governance, rule of law and human rights. It states that improvements in access to justice and human rights for women will be indicated by a “demonstrated implementation, with civil society engagement, of the EVAW law”.

Fawzia Koofi, an MP and women’s rights activist, was seeking a parliamentary vote to prevent the legislation being reversed in the future. Speaking to the BBC before the debate was held, she said:  “There is a lack of assurance that any president of Afghanistan will have any commitment to women’s issues and in particular towards this decree.”

Koofi also claimed that the law would enable the government to prosecute abuses cases even were the claim to be withdrawn. This would attempt to prevent family pressure resulting in women withdrawing their complaint and cases collapsing.

Senior United Nations officials urged the government to fully implement the legislation following the debate. Jan Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) called the law “critical”; Ingibjorg Gisladottir, the UN Women representative in Afghanistan, urged the implementation of the law, saying: “It is imperative for the development of Afghanistan that women are able to exercise their rights and be free from violence in their homes and workplaces.”

But while the legislation was welcomed as a step in the right direction for women’s rights in Afghanistan, concerns have been raised over its implementation. Recent research shows that between 2010 and 2011, the primary courts relied on the EVAW law as the basis of their judgement in just 4% of cases registered by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission where the incident could be defined as a crime under the law.

And not everybody wanted to see the legislation go before Parliament. In a message to Womankind, the Afghan Women’s Resource Center demanded that the legislation be removed from the agenda for 18 May. This was due to the fear that raising the issue in Parliament in order to strengthen the legislation could in fact give those opposed to the legislation a chance to dismantle the current protection for women. As Soraya Sobrang, a women’s rights activist, asked, what would stop those who opposed to the legislation “from pulling a list from their back pocket” of modifications that could weaken the protection?

MP Farkhunda Zahra Naderi told the BBC that her fears had been proved right following the parliamentary debate. Parliamentary members disagreed on a number of provisions, with those particularly at risk of being amended relating to child marriage, forced marriage, sale and purchase of women for the purpose of or under the pretext of marriage, prohibiting women to marry or to choose a husband, polygamy and preventing women’s access to education and work. According to the Afghan Women’s Resource Center, “the situation is really serious – most of the articles that are supposed to be modified are actually the core parts of the law”.

While there have been some changes in the past 10 years for women in Afghanistan – in the parliamentary elections of 2010 women won 27% of the seats – concerns are often raised that women’s rights will be sacrificed during peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.  Last month Human Rights Watch reported that 600 women and girls are imprisoned for “moral crimes” – 50% more than in January 2010.

The Law to Eliminate Violence against Women remains in force but the Speaker did not indicate when the law would to be put to the floor again for a vote. At a time when every effort must be made to protect the rights of women in Afghanistan, the future remains unclear.

Have any views on issues in Afghanistan? Why not write for us? Email emilywight@developmentinaction.org

Development in Action (DiA) is a development education charity run entirely by young people, for young people. 

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