Photo: US State Department

On 19 March, Farkhunda was lynched by an angry mob on the streets of Kabul. She had been falsely accused of burning the Quran. In a swift trial, four men were sentenced to death, eight to 16 years in prison. The Farkhunda trial is a statistical outlier. In Afghanistan, few men are punished for violence against women. 

Farkhunda Malikzada was a 27 year old Afghan woman who was brutally attacked and killed near the Shah-e Du Shamshira mosque in central Kabul. She had been arguing with a shrine keeper about his practice of selling charms at the mosque, and he falsely accused her of burning a copy of the Quran. Hearing the accusations, angry men flocked to the mosque and attacked her. She was beaten with sticks and stones and ran over with a car. Her body was dumped on the banks of the Kabul river and set afire.

In a remarkably swift trial in early May, the judge handed down sentences for 30 of the defendants. Four men were sentenced to death, eight men to 16 years in prison, and 18 were acquitted. 19 policemen who were accused of neglect of duty by not intervening got their verdict today; 11 of them were sentenced to one year in prison. The murder of Farkhunda has become a symbol of violence against women and the lack of protection for women in Afghanistan.         

Few are punished
Lobbying for women’s rights have been an uphill battle in Afghanistan. After years of pressure from Afghan women’s rights activists and the international donor community, few improvements have materialized. Despite widespread abuse and violence against women, few men are punished. The prosecution and conviction rates for rape are low, the prosecution and conviction rates for beating, virtually non-existent.

Some steps have been taken in order to protect women from violence and abuse. In 2009, the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law was enacted by a presidential decree. The law identifies 22 acts of violence against women, like rape, prostitution and forced marriage, and advises prison sentences for several of the acts that are criminalized in the law. Special EVAW units have been established in Afghan prosecution units. Yet, despite massive political interest and debate, the implementation has been limited.

-Violence against women has traditionally been seen as a private matter, says Torunn Wimpelmann, senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute.

In a new study in collaboration with RIWPS, she takes a closer look at the numbers behind violence against women in Afghanistan.

Pride and prejudice
Wimpelmann is concerned that many of these incidents, even the gravest ones, are never reported. Violence against women is prevalent and the hidden figures are extremely high.

-The most serious cases often involve women who do not have the resources or support to actually go to the police to report the crime, she says.

Why is the threshold for reporting violence and abuse so high? And why are so few prosecuted and convicted for violence against women? Is it due to prejudice among justice officials? Among family members? There are as many stories as there are women.

-Some women are undoubtedly pressured by family members or prosecutors to withdraw, says Wimpelmann.

The sensitive character of allegations of violence complicates the picture. Criminal claims have been known to become pawns in family conflicts that are really about something completely different. Claim rapes have turned out to be a matter of wanting dowry or restoring honour. Women have also used criminal charges as a leverage for civil claims. In some cases, women report to be victims of violence, but they are not interested in pursuing criminal cases, but rather to obtain a divorce, which is difficult for Afghan women, or other civil claims such as alimony or a residence separate from co-wives or in-laws.

Lowered threshold for reporting violence
It has been challenging to find data about the number of cases and convictions. Yet, a clear pattern has emerged. Preliminary findings in four provinces show that in a caseload of 1925 reported cases, only 137 ended with a conviction. The numbers also show that there is a big difference between the provinces. In Kabul province, conviction rates for violence against women are low. In the conservative province of Khost, there is a massive conviction rate. These figures may seem surprising, but if you have a closer look at the types of cases, the explanation is as straightforward as it is discouraging.

-The massive conviction rates in Khost are in murder cases. Beatings or rape are rarely reported, and if they are, the perpetrators are not likely to be prosecuted, says Wimpelmann.

The failure to prosecute and convict perpetrators has been seen as a deficit of the government not pushing sufficiently. Yet, Wimpelmann is cautious about drawing preliminary conclusions.

-Even though prosecution and conviction rates are low, the fact that women can go to the prosecution units have increased their access to the justice system. The threshold for reporting violence and abuse has been lowered, and many of the prosecutors have been quite sensitive and supportive as far as we can tell, she says.

The surge in the number of reported cases may be an indication that violence against women increasingly is seen as a public matter.

Instead of only pushing for more convictions, women’s rights advocates should lobby for the improvement of women’s general social and economic rights, argues Wimpelmann.

-If women had economic independence, they would be more likely to leave an abusive husband, or at least have greater bargaining power in the relationship. However, this is not only a matter of economy. It is also about social rights and norms. One of the factors crucial for many women, is the right to divorce, says Wimpelmann. Moreover, there are strong social sanctions against women living independently.

The brutal attack against Farkhunda caused a public stir in Afghanistan. Campaigns to find and punish her killers flourished in social media. At her funeral, women’s rights activists broke with tradition and carried her coffin to her grave. Given this mobilization, the courts were expected to punish at least some of the defendants, although  many are disappointed that others go free and that the police men so blatently failing to protect Farkhunda will keep their jobs after a mere 1 year sentence. It remains to see what will happen to men who beat and abuse women inside the privacy of their homes.