Of the many unjust laws and customs Afghan women and girls endure, being punished for trying to save themselves from harm is surely the worst.
And yet a decade after the fall of the Taliban, girls and women are still being routinely prosecuted and imprisoned for so-called “moral crimes,” which include fleeing rape, escaping from abusive spouses and leaving underage marriages.
Canada, and other NATO allies preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, should pressure Hamid Karzai to end the wrongful imprisonment of women and girls. At least 400 women who are not criminals but victims of crime remain in jail and juvenile detention facilities, according to a report from Human Rights Watch. “Every time a woman or girl flees a forced marriage or domestic violence only to end up behind bars, it sends a clear message to others enduring abuse that seeking help from the government is likely to result in punishment, not rescue,” notes the report, “I Had to Run Away: Women and Girls Imprisoned for Moral Crimes in Afghanistan.”
While “running away” is not a crime under the criminal code, the Afghan Supreme Court has instructed judges to treat women and girls who flee violence as criminals, concerned that leaving home could lead to prostitution or the crime of zina, sexual intercourse between two individuals who are not married. (Men do not require permission to leave their homes.)
This clear violation of women’s rights flies in the face of Afghanistan’s own constitution, as well as a 2009 presidential decree to eliminate all forms of violence against women. Canada, which has withdrawn its soldiers from Afghanistan but retains 1,000 military trainers, says the mission’s main focus is to improve the lives of women and girls. Ottawa credits the Karzai government for taking “positive steps toward ensuring progress for women and children and advancing their rights.”
However, there is no mention of the zina laws or the 400 women imprisoned for fleeing abuse on the government’s website. Reforming these laws is as important a goal as ensuring girls can go to school and women can run for political office. The treatment of women and girls accused of moral crimes is a black eye on the face of the Karzai government and the international community. However, it is not too late to lobby for justice – and help protect the most vulnerable.