Women in Afghanistan face violence on a daily basis. In 2014, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission registered 2,026 cases of violence against women—a 15.8 percent increase from two years earlier. Last year alone, 162 women were beaten to death, with 92 of those incidents described as honor killings. No wonder Afghanistan has been called the world’s “most dangerous country” for women.
These incidences do not occur only in rural Afghanistan, as commonly perceived, but in major cities like Herat and Kabul as well. Apart from physical violence, other types of violence against women are also widespread. Perhaps the least spoken-about form is sexual harassment, which is rife in workplaces, at educational institutions, and on the streets.
Afghanistan’s sexual harassment problem has held back the inclusion of women in society. Though girls’ access to education and women’s employment and participation in public life have improved since 2001, unchecked sexual harassment makes it hard for girls and women to take advantage of these new opportunities.
Unsurprisingly, in a country where traditions, taboos, and stigmas—compounded by weak rule of law—restrict women’s access to justice and delay their emancipation, many cases of sexual harassment go unreported. Nevertheless, many NGOs have taken up the task of collecting data and registering cases of sexual harassment.
The data is alarming. Recent research by Open Society Afghanistan grantee Women and Children Legal Research Foundation was carried out in seven provinces. The results indicate that nine out of ten girls and women in those provinces have been harassed at least once. Tragically, 14 percent of the respondents who experienced harassment in schools and universities dropped out of those institutions.
A number of organizations have been working in Kabul to raise awareness, provide support to the victims, and advocate for the criminalization of harassment. After years of such advocacy, in August the Afghan Council of Ministers passed the Sexual Harassment Prevention Regulation, drafted by a committee of a dozen civil society organizations. Getting the regulation passed into law by parliament will require continued efforts, and be immensely critical for women in less-developed provinces where meager attention has been paid to their plight.
Bamyan is one such province. Located in the central highlands, it is growing every day as its universities become a popular destination in central Afghanistan. The nongovernmental sector is also developing and a number of NGOs have emerged in recent decades, supporting women and young girls’ activities in public life as students, employees, and activists.
This growing presence of women in the public sphere has presented challenges. While many assume that the relatively peaceful Bamyan offers a female-friendly environment, girls and women living there can tell you otherwise. Interviewing students—both male and female—I was informed that girls and women face harassment everywhere, particularly in Bamyan’s academic institutions and on its streets.
Lack of awareness, the absence of laws against harassment, a corrupt justice system, and indifferent police forces have aggravated the problem. While certain progress has been achieved in the capital, there is still a long way to go. NGOs must focus their attention and work with locals to address this problem, lest women’s presence in public life in Afghanistan fades again.