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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Women in Jail


Women in Jail

Monday 8 October 2007, by Aunohita Mojumdar

Each year the festival of Eid that ends the month-long Ramadan holiday season is commemorated in Afghanistan with presidential pardons for prisoners.


It’s a show of cultural benevolence since Ramadan is traditionally celebrated with families coming together.

But as Eid approaches on Oct. 13, women’s groups and international organizations are warning that many women, if released, will become homeless, ostracized and vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Others may wind up back in custody for being "unaccompanied" women.

Some may become victims to relatives who carry out punishments as severe as execution.

"Women die after leaving prison," said Dr. Anou Borrey, a gender justice consultant for the United Nations Development Fund for Women in Afghanistan.

"Afghan women in jail are lucky, at least they are alive," said Carla Ciavarella, the justice program coordinator of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, who has worked with Afghanistan’s penitentiary system for four years. "We do not know how many women are killed or abused at home every day."

The warnings follow an early September report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime that found at least half the women in Afghanistan’s largest jail are there for so-called moral crimes such as adultery, "running away," being in the company of a man who is not a relative or even giving shelter to a runaway woman.

The agency’s Afghanistan representative, Christina Orguz, said many of the women would be considered victims, not perpetrators, in most other countries.

Findings Echoed

The findings echo a January 2007 assessment of the status of women in Afghanistan by Medica Mondiale, an advocacy group for traumatized women and girls in war and crisis zones that has worked extensively with female prisoners in Afghanistan.

"The judiciary overwhelmingly tends to hold women responsible for crimes even when they themselves are the victims and cases are judged employing tribal laws of traditions instead of codified law," the Cologne, Germany-based group found. "In particular accusations of ’zina,’ or sexual intercourse outside of marriage—irrespective of the truth—are often prosecuted and the woman sentenced to prison even when she was the victim of rape."

For the U.N. report, investigators interviewed 56 of the 69 women imprisoned in Pul-e-Charkhi, the country’s largest prison located on the outskirts of Kabul.

One of the female prisoners at Pul-e-Charkhi told interviewers that her husband killed a man in a land dispute and later claimed it was her adultery that led to the killing. Since she had no witnesses to prove she had not committed adultery she was imprisoned. The woman, who is illiterate and poor, is serving a six-year sentence along with her child. Her initial sentence of one year was increased she says, after her request for a divorce, a plea she feels may have prejudiced the judge against her.

Among the 11,200 people imprisoned in Afghanistan there are 300 women, a number that has roughly doubled from 2004 to 2006.

Some of the women’s "crimes" are not listed in Afghanistan’s formal modern criminal code, which is based on Sharia, or Islamic religious law.

Women as Property

The formal justice system based on Sharia as well as the traditional or customary councils of elders—which are often harsher—view women as the property of their husbands’ extended family, a view that warps the interpretation of the criminal code.

As property, for instance, women do not have the right to run away because they do not have the right to leave the house without permission of a husband or male relative, a custom that prevents depriving men of their possessions.

Women are also the bearers of family honor and any perceived erosion of that honor can be considered dangerous and punishable by families.

A UNIFEM study from May 2006 estimates that 82 percent of the violence against women in Afghanistan is committed by family members.

Domestic violence is more common in forced marriages, including those involving brides younger than 16. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s last assessment estimated that the majority of marriages in Afghanistan—between 60 percent and 80 percent—are forced and many include a child of either sex.

Afghanistan’s laws allow a girl to be married at the age of 15 with paternal consent, but in practice many fathers are considered entitled to grant consent to children of any age.

Marriages and divorces are often not documented in Afghanistan. This means a woman who marries after a divorce risks being accused of adultery if her former husband claims he never divorced her. Social customs and tradition here make it much more difficult for a woman to initiate divorce proceedings and the lack of formal documentation of births, marriages and divorces makes it difficult to provide proof. In a dispute where it is a man’s word against a woman’s, the man is usually believed. Some ex-husbands exploit the lack of proof of divorces to gain monetary compensation from a second husband for taking his "property."

Women are given away in exchange for debts, to settle scores, to redress complaints.

Forced to Marry 9-Year-Old Boy

Amina, who like many other Afghan women uses only her first name, is a member of the local women’s peace council in Ghazni, a city located in southern Afghanistan. In a meeting in Kabul with her local female parliamentarian she angrily recounted the story of a 46-year-old widow she knows who was forced to marry her 9-year-old brother-in-law because custom demands widows marry into her husband’s family.

Zahira Mawlai, the parliamentarian, pointed out that under Islam a woman’s consent is mandatory for any marriage and any use of force is considered a sin. But in practice, she said, Afghan women often lack such decision-making power. A first step to ending forced and under-age marriages, she said, is to add the practices to the country’s penal code as criminal offenses.

U.N. representatives and women’s groups such as Medica Mondiale are working to equip female prisoners with skills that will help them survive and to establish conditions for their safe release.

These include literacy vocational training for employment and legal awareness classes. Advocates are also working to establish short- and long-term guidelines with the Afghanistan Ministry of Justice for the treatment and rehabilitation of female prisoners.

Transitional houses are yet to be established, but have been recommended by the United Nations and other groups.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 17 years and she has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict development in Punjab extensively.