Independent Appeal: A legal light in the Afghan dark


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The Independent Online

The girl is 15 years old but looks younger, a frightened figure abandoned by her family, facing a bleak future in a country at war. Rahima was raped but her attacker is free and unlikely to face prosecution. Eight years after "liberation" from the Taliban, women remain vulnerable and victimised in large swathes of Afghanistan.

The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif is one of the few places that women like Rahima receive support in shelters where paralegals act on their behalf. The scheme, supported by ActionAid – which is one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal – is being extended to the south.

The need is great: sexual violence against women has been steadily increasing. The government has been accused not just of failure to protect women but acquiescing to legalised rape within marriage. A law to this effect passed into the statute books with no opposition from President Hamid Karzai. It was withdrawn for modifications only after an international outcry.

Rahima was 14 when she was assaulted and became pregnant. The "justice" handed to her by a family court was to order the attacker, a 20-year-old neighbour who already had a wife, to marry her. In the event her rapist produced a faked marriage certificate purporting to show that the marriage had already taken place at the time of the assault and thus, no crime had been committed. Rahima's baby has been given away for adoption.

"This is a terrible story, but I am afraid there are many more like it," said Nasima Rahmani, ActionAid's chief coordinator on women's rights. "This girl is the one who has suffered, but the system is so one-sided that it is she who is now suffering.

"It is a really uphill struggle. Most people think that the 'rape in marriage' law was repealed. But, in reality, it is just being changed and the conservative MPs want to keep in things which are still pretty oppressive."

At her shelter Rahima pleads with paralegal Rayana Karimi to help her escape the false marriage. "Then at least I'd know he cannot come for me and abuse me again," she said. "This will give me some peace."

"We can try to get compensation, but this will not be easy," Ms Karimi explains. An engineer by training, Ms Karimi is 45, and her marriage, unlike most in Afghanistan, was not arranged. Her husband, Gul Ahmed, has been supportive of her work. He is, however, worried by threats she has received on a number of cases.

"I have young children and I have to be careful. But I just got threatened with violence. Getting beaten up, or worse, is what many Afghan women face if they stand up for their rights."

Nadia, a 70-year-old widow, says that is what happened to her after she tried to complain about her brother "swindling" her out of her right to the family home. "The judges did nothing, but then my brother is a rich landowner and I am just a poor widow," she said. Larissa Wardak, a paralegal confirms: "In our society elderly people are supposed to be respected. But that doesn't happen if you're a woman who is poor."

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