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For Afghan Women, Rape Law Offers Little Protection

Afghan women in the northwestern city of Herat. Women still have few rights and can end up in jail on adultery charges when they accuse a man of rape. There are fears that women's rights will be further eroded when Western troops leave the country.
Aref Karimi
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan women in the northwestern city of Herat. Women still have few rights and can end up in jail on adultery charges when they accuse a man of rape. There are fears that women's rights will be further eroded when Western troops leave the country.

This week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the pardon of a 19-year-old Afghan woman who was imprisoned for adultery after being raped by a relative, in a case that has attracted international media coverage.

But what happened to the woman, Gulnaz, who has been in prison for two years, is not an isolated episode.

Many other women have suffered similar fates. A recent U.N. report suggests that laws to protect women in Afghanistan from rape and forced marriage are still not being enforced — with devastating results.

That much is evident at the Badem Bagh Women's prison in Kabul. It's a desperate place, made worse by the fact that many of its inmates are there for being the victims of rape and assault. Women are regularly imprisoned for refusing to marry, for running away from their husbands, and for "adultery" when they are raped.

That's what happened to Gulnaz.

"The Afghan government says I have committed a crime. That's not true. My rights have been violated yet I am being punished as a criminal. All I want now is to get out of here," she told NPR in a prison interview before her pardon was announced.

Gulnaz — like many Afghans, she goes by only one name — says her cousin's husband found her alone at home one day when her mother had taken her cousin to see a doctor. He tied her hands and raped her. She was afraid to tell anyone, but two months later her morning sickness gave her away: She was carrying the rapist's child. When she went to the police they arrested the rapist, but they also arrested Gulnaz for adultery.

Gulnaz's baby girl, now 9 months old, was born on the floor of the prison.

Initially, she received a sentence of 12 years, which was later reduced. And on Thursday, Karzai pardoned her. It's been reported that there are no conditions for her release, but it's not clear whether tradition will ultimately force her to marry her rapist.

"Once I am out of here, I have no choice but to go back to the person who raped me," Gulnaz said prior to her pardon. "My life is over. I have no choice but to marry him."

Movie Release Halted

Traditional solutions may be more likely to prevail in Afghanistan than formal legal solutions — a girl from the perpetrator's family is given in marriage to the offended family; the rapist takes his victim as a wife, sometimes a second wife. Only happenstance has given Gulnaz a chance at a different ending.

A group of filmmakers commissioned by the European Union interviewed Gulnaz and other prisoners at length, hoping to bring attention to their plight. Filmmaker Leslie Knott was involved in the project.

"Finally we came across a few women who were really willing to tell their story and really passionate about sharing what they had gone through and the reason for that was they wanted to make sure it would never happen again to women in Afghanistan," Knott says.

But after viewing the finished product, EU diplomats decided not to release the film they had funded. Vygaudas Usackas, the special representative of the EU in Afghanistan, said he wants publicity for the situation of Afghan women but was concerned that Gulnaz and other women in the film would be put in danger.

"I'm in favor for the broadest publicity possible. But at the same time, [my] sole responsibility ... as representative of the European Union is to ensure there are no repercussions to the safety and well-being of women," he said in an interview before Gulnaz's pardon was announced.

Gulnaz told NPR she wants her story told — but not inside Afghanistan. Usackas said it would be impossible to prevent a film from reaching Afghanistan via YouTube or Facebook, which could put Gulnaz in danger.

But a letter sent to the filmmakers from Zoe Leffler, another EU representative, stated "The [EU] delegation also has to consider its relations with the justice institutions in connection with the other work that it is doing in the sector."

Usackas said that line in the letter does not represent EU policy.

But advocates in Afghanistan suggest that the EU doesn't want to sour relations with the Afghan government over the issue of women's rights.

Will Tradition Continue To Trump Law?

In any case, the controversy and media attention most probably helped secure Gulnaz's pardon, and she may yet find a home in one of Afghanistan's anonymous women's shelters. But Badem Bagh prison is still full of women with similar stories.

Meena — she asked to give only one name — is a former Afghan government employee. She says that when she got into a fight with her husband recently, he threw boiling water on her, and she has scars on her face and arms. The police arrested both of them, and Meena says she expects a lengthy sentence.

"The media should pay attention. Our voice should be heard," says Meena. But she is concerned there will be less attention as the international presence in Afghanistan draws down in the coming years.

The United Nations recently warned in a report that time is running out to push Afghanistan's government to follow its own laws on violence against women. "We're worried that women's rights will be compromised and there will be retrograde steps taken," says Georgette Gagnon, who directs the U.N. human-rights office in Afghanistan. "Women themselves are very much counting on internationals to support them over the next few years, and in our view it's now or never on this issue."

Gagnon says as things stand, Afghan laws are often trumped by traditional Afghan justice, which she says doesn't protect women and often lets perpetrators walk free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.