Laura is an MJur student at Durham Law School, Durham University.
Even today our legal system continues to fail to protect women from all forms of violence. Commonly cited examples are those of rape and sexual offences more generally, where attrition rates are high, and adequate support of the victim is lacking at all stages of the legal process. Instead of providing support for all victims of sexual violence in the criminal justice system, ‘rape myths’ act to reinforce the notion of a chaste, virgin, victim, who is attacked by a stranger in a dark alley at night. By comparison the overwhelming majority of victims who do not conform to this expectation, perhaps because of their familiar relationship with the defendant, their dress, or flirtatious behaviour, are often considered to be ‘asking for it’. Consequently the victim is condemned as the guilty party.
This places our legal system in a shameful position, yet despite these failings it has never regressed to a stage where we formally criminalise the rape victim (although notably a rape victim was recently imprisoned for withdrawing her case from the criminal justice system, following pressure from an abusive husband and his family). Sad to say, that is precisely what has happened in Afghanistan, by way of a crime known as “adultery by force”. Furthermore, there are fears that as the foreign military presence in the country lessen that the problem will become worse.
One harrowing example of where a rape victim had been convicted of the crime was described in a recent BBC report An Afghan woman named ‘Gulnaz’ had been raped by her cousin’s husband, fell pregnant as a result and in accordance with Afghan law, both she and her rapist were arrested. Gulnaz was duly found guilty of ‘adultery by force’ and was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment. It was only following international condemnation that she was pardoned by Afghan President Karzai.
Notwithstanding the pardon, the BBC correspondent Caroline Wyatt was of the opinion that the woman’s fate would be little better outside prison, due to the sanctity of ‘family honour’ in Afghanistan. Family honour is so important that it usually comes before individual liberty, freedom, and wellbeing. Reflecting this fact, Gulnaz even conceded that she would have married her attacker if it had meant she were able to go home to her family. However that option had not been given to her and as a result she, and her now newly born child, were living in a ‘women’s’ safe house’. The reality for Gulnaz was that to return after having tarnished her family’s honour, could have lethal consequences. Sadly there are also few ways for women to survive in Afghanistan without family support.
Afghanistan does have laws which ban violence against women, but in a country struggling to recover from decades of conflict, enforcing them is naturally very difficult. Even in the UK, the continued levels of violence against women, despite our comparatively advanced legal system, demonstrate just how difficult enforcement is. In addition the problem in Afghanistan is exacerbated by lack of education and under-age marriage, both of which remain common. Therefore it remains of the upmost importance that as the international community withdraw support from the country, the plight of Afghan women is not forgotten. We as a society must fight to improve the laws that protect women from rape, sexual offences and all forms of violence, abroad, just as we attempt to do in our own country.