Afghan Women Lack Rights and Access to Courts

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 7:12 PM EDT

In a country where an estimated 60 to 80 percent of marriages are arranged—often to settle blood feuds and debts—and 57 percent of marriages are between a man and a young girl under the age of 16, there have been some half-hearted attempts over the past few years to introduce more just laws in order to give girls and women a stronger voice. These laws include raising the minimum age of a marrying girl and one that grants women the right to file for a divorce if her husband is absent for more than four years. Thousands of women have been abandoned by men who left them due to the economic insecurity, unemployment, and violence in their home towns.

But practices don't always mirror what's on paper: The Supreme Court has conservative ties that, in the past, have led them to uphold stringent measures. Recently, the Court upheld the marriage of a man and a nine-year-old girl. The justice system hasn't been kind to Afghan women either: A recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report found that there are currently around 300 female prisoners and that "many women who find themselves in the criminal justice system cannot be defined as criminals...most having been imprisoned for 'moral crimes.'"

And lack of access to courts creates a barrier to justice as well. Afghan courts are found in cities, but nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan's population lives in rural areas. Even for the few women who are able to turn to the courts, the outcome of their cases is often not desired. Afghan courts still favor men, especially in abuse and custody cases, whereby social and family connections are the deciding factor. Women are rarely granted divorce and many that want a divorce won't turn to the courts because of the social taboo associated with them.

Unbearable marriages, contentious relationships with in-laws, and feeling as though they have nowhere to go have led many Afghan women to turn to suicide. In the past six months, more than 250 have committed suicide, many using the painful method of self-immolation.

In the July/August issue of Mother Jones, photographer Lana Šlezić explores the issues facing Afghan women and the prevalence of suicide by self-immolation in her photo essay "The Hidden Half."

—Neha Inamdar

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