Afghan woman prisoner in Parwan Province. Photo by Farzana Wahidy, Credit to Human Rights Watch

I Had to Run Away” is an important and much-needed report by Human Rights Watch on the issue of imprisonment of women for so-called ‘moral crimes’ in Afghanistan. The report, which is quite heartbreaking, provides necessary statistics, data, and information on the lives of Afghan women who attempt to run away from home (usually, due to severe domestic abuse and family violence), and then become caught up in a criminal justice system that serves to worsen their plight and place the blame on the women and girls themselves, rather than apprehending those who abused them.

When I was in Kabul for a brief time, I met a number of women who were receiving legal aid and representation via Justice for All, the NGO for which I was fundraising from a distance. We went to Kabul’s female detention center and spoke to a number of women; at least half were detained for moral crimes, particularly running away and adultery (zina). According to the HRW report:

When women and girls decide to leave because of abusive relationships or unhappiness, enraged parents, brothers, fiancés, and husbands frequently track them down and accuse them of running away or of zina. [..] Aided by authorities too willing to accept their allegations at face value, they can accuse a woman of zina, knowing that she is likely to be arrested. When this happens, women often suffer an invasive medical examination and severe damage to their credibility and reputation, even if charges are never proven. Even the threat of an accusation can be used to control women and cover up or justify crimes, including forced and underage marriage, rape, assault, and forced prostitution.

Women and girls are not always without help. Some family members […] offer shelter and protection, while some Afghan officials act courageously to protect women. With donor funding and government support, a small number of private shelters have been set up in about half the regions of the country to protect women fleeing violence and forced marriage.

However, such measures are for the most part inadequate. Women and girls are often not aware that shelters exist, and those that do operate are too few in number and cannot protect a woman who has been accused of a crime. Moreover, bias is rife against women and girls at every stage of the justice system, with many officials enforcing unwritten social norms, rather than protecting women from abuse. All too often, police comply with fathers or husbands, like Homa’s, who contact police to have fleeing wives or daughters arrested, assuming that if a man complains about a woman or she is outside the home without permission, she is “bad” and guilty of immorality. In some alleged “moral crimes” cases, police have arrested women or girls while they took refuge in shelters.

After an arrest, police typically collect statements from women in intimidating circumstances and without legal counsel or even a friend present. Women and girls are instructed to sign with thumbprints confessions they cannot read and that have not been read to them. These “confessions” are often the sole evidence presented in court, and routinely result in convictions and long sentences.

With only rare exceptions, prosecutors and police decline to investigate claims of abuse that women cite as the reason they left their homes. Judges issue decisions citing irrelevant information, such as a letter from a woman’s husband complaining of her disobedience and asking that she be punished, while offering no legal analysis or reasoning.

During our research, we found no evidence that anyone in the justice process had asked meaningful questions about whether women believed to have engaged in sexual intercourse did so willingly or were raped. For example, in one court record that Human Rights Watch reviewed, Tahmina J., 18, said she was raped. Instead of pursuing her allegations, the court’s decision warned that women should know that it is unsafe for them to go out at night, and said the victim must not have screamed very much or someone would have heard her. The court concluded that two men took Tahmina J. to an abandoned building and “sexually assaulted” her, yet convicted her of zina and sentenced her to two-and-a-half years in prison, where she remains today. […]

When Human Rights Watch asked prosecutors why they prosecuted women and girls for “moral crimes” while failing to make basic inquiries about the crimes that women and girls alleged were committed against them, the typical response was laughter. Prosecutors explained that the women and girls detained for “moral crimes” were of bad moral character and must therefore have fabricated stories of abuse. Others suggested that the abuse was not severe enough to warrant punishing the husband.

Afghan prisoners in Kabul. Credit: Lalage Snow, Human Rights Watch

Unfortunately, if these women are released from detention, many of them might face even worse fates — beatings and even the threat of death from family members who believe she has brought shame upon the community. Many women and girls simply have no safe place to go, even if legal organizations do represent them, advocate for them, and obtain their release through sustained effort:

Many women and girls who left their homes said they fear their husbands or family members will kill them for having “shamed” their families when they eventually are released from prison, a fear justified by the frequency with which “honor killings” occur in Afghanistan. Guarded shelters, operated by brave Afghan nongovernmental organizations, are the only option for some of these women and girls to stay alive, but such shelters exist only in less conservative parts of the country and face threats from opponents who describe them as “brothels” and seek to have them closed.

Other women told Human Rights Watch that they have to choose between a life of abuse and a life without their children. Some said they plan to return to the home they fled, where abuse inevitably awaits them, because they know that if they do not return their husbands will keep their children.

I felt unbelievably sad upon reading this, because the barriers to addressing this problem seem immense. Secret shelters, safe spaces and holistic programs to help women who are released from prison and to ensure their safety subsequently are absolutely necessary, but require government support to operate due to protests from many that these shelters are operating as brothels (not true!). But with the help of NGOs and international organizations, and with continued pressure exerted on the government by organizations like Human Rights Watch to change the status quo by allowing NGOs supporting women to operate and training lawyers, police and prosecutors to better deal with such cases according to CEDAW, I hold out hope that some change is eventually possible.

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