Nargez* was 14 years old when her father arranged her marriage to a 55-year-old stranger who had offered a large amount of money. After years of sexual and physical abuse, she fled with her brother’s help and sought safety in his home. But when she tried to file for divorce, her husband pressed charges against her for running away and against her brother for helping her. They were both sentenced to seven years in jail.
When it comes to justice in Afghanistan, our research at Samuel Hall shows that women are at a disadvantage in accessing and navigating the legal system, and are thereby particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In the wake of International Women’s Day, it is worth revisiting the gaps in protection for Afghan women.
The Afghan justice system, which juggles traditional customs, Islamic law and Western-supported legal reforms, is under immense strain. It is challenged by insurgents, the remoteness of much of the country’s population, and a lack of proper understanding and application of the laws.
For instance, zina laws, which deal with sexual relations outside of marriage, are frequently used to punish victims of domestic violence who leave home, and are often applied with insufficient evidence. Attempts at reform, like the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law, have been met with significant protests. The EVAW law, which was signed by then President Hamid Karzai in 2009, criminalizes acts of violence against women – ranging from denial of inheritance to forced marriage and rape. However, it has yet to be approved by the Afghan parliament.
But the fundamental problem is larger than legal issues. Women face significant challenges in simply accessing the legal system. As a result, laws that have been passed to support them have limited impact. Lack of access to civil documentation such as tazkera (national IDs) and marriage certificates is a major, but hidden, reason for difficulties in gaining access to justice. Without tazkera and a marriage certificate, women cannot legally claim inheritance or assert their rights in divorce cases. And to obtain tazkera following general procedures, both men and women must present a copy of the tazkera of one of their male relatives. Therefore, women are dependent on the willingness of their male relatives to help them. Women without close male relatives who have IDs, and who are willing to help, will find it nearly impossible to obtain documentation.
Our recent research (commissioned by the Norwegian Refugee Council and funded by the European Commission, SIDA, UNHCR and Danida), found that only 38 percent of Afghan women surveyed reported having national IDs, versus 90 percent of men. Almost 60 percent had no form of civil documentation at all. The reality for Afghan women across the country might be even worse, as the research focused on provinces containing major urban centers.
A combination of structural and practical reasons drive this problem.
The government has recently made commendable efforts to address cultural limitations to obtaining documentation by hiring more female staff and creating women-only areas in Kabul’s main documentation office, making it easier for women to get national ID cards and passports. However, most women are still very much dependent on their family’s approval and support. Having to interact with men they are not related to – including documentation office staff – makes this task impossible for many. One of the men we interviewed said, “I wanted to get a tazkera for my wife. The governor said, ‘Bring your wife to my office so I can verify her age.’ So, I gave up because he wanted to see my wife.”
Among women without documentation, our 2016 report Access to Tazkera and Other forms of Civil Documentation in Afghanistan found that internally displaced women are at a heightened risk of falling through the cracks. Only 21 percent of internally displaced women we met have tazkera. Anyone who wants to obtain an ID is required to travel to their native province, but most female Afghan IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who have fled their homes cannot return because of conflict or threats to their life. Many end up without official documentation, and thus are more vulnerable to abuse. The lack of documentation means their children cannot attend school, and they may be unable to access aid and basic services.
Access to civil documentation is frequently put to one side by humanitarian and development initiatives, as immediate humanitarian needs and broader policy-level reforms take precedence. Yet documentation, and its attendant rights, are key to empowering not just displaced women, but also those living in their homes, so that they can fully participate as members of their local communities.
Thankfully, initiatives to provide access to documentation are starting to take root. The Afghan government is partnering with the Norwegian Refugee Council to test new procedures that will allow IDPs to access tazkera, hopefully leading the way for similar initiatives – including some with a gender focus – that can reach women across the country.
* Names have been changed
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls.