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living with violence a national report on domestic abuse in Afghanistan Global Rights: Partners for Justice

by Diya Nijhowne and Lauryn Oates | July 4, 2008

[T]he term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

— United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, article 1

Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following: a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family …

— United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, article 2

Global Rights’ Living with Violence: A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan ... presents the findings of surveys on domestic violence conducted with women in 4,700 households in 16 provinces located across Afghanistan in 2006.

The research is unique in many respects. It is the first to report on domestic violence throughout the country based on samples of women that are representative of the ethnic and geographic diversity of Afghanistan. It is also the first that gathers statistical data from surveys with women at the household level rather than relying on secondary sources such as records of reported violence at police stations or hospitals.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the research, however, is that it reflects a collaborative effort between Global Rights and Afghan civil society.

Situating domestic violence within an international human rights framework is important: it shifts responsibility for responding to domestic violence away from a moral or charitable act of individuals and converts it into also being a binding legal obligation of the government. Under international law, the Afghan State has a duty to take all steps to respect, promote and fulfill human rights, and to prevent, eradicate and punish violations of human rights, including domestic violence.

Recognizing domestic violence as a human rights violation also empowers women by classifying them as rights bearers rather than victims or subjects of the government’s goodwill or largesse.

The extraordinarily high levels of violence taking place within Afghan households, which is documented in this report, indicates an environment in which women are valued less than men and where hurting or even killing women can be acceptable and enjoys impunity. In Afghanistan, as in every other country in the world, the presence of domestic violence is symptomatic of deep-running inequality between men and women and of social institutions and political structures that condone and perpetuate this inequality.

Ending domestic violence therefore demands the mobilization of all sectors of government, of the international community in Afghanistan, and of civil society; it demands not only a response to acts of violence that have taken place or are still occurring, but also the initiation of transformations at a social, cultural, political, and economic level that will prevent abuse from occurring at all.

the experience of violence

The finding that most women suffer multiple forms of violence indicates that a woman who suffers one form of violence is at heightened risk of suffering other forms. Moreover, the finding emphasizes that violence does not consist of a single act or even of a series of acts, but typically pervades every aspect of a woman’s life. It affects her freedom to express her views or beliefs, her ability to participate in social or religious life, as well as her physical security. This, in turn, prevents a woman from realizing her civil, political, economic and cultural rights.

Hence, while domestic violence is a human rights violation in itself, it has a multiplier effect on other rights violations.


The findings of this research are alarming:

  • an overwhelming majority of women, 87.2%, experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence or forced marriage
  • most, 62.0%, experienced multiple forms of violence
  • overall, 17.2% of women reported sexual violence
  • 11.2% experience rape
  • 52.4 % of women reported physical violence
  • 39.3% say they had been hit by their husband in the last year

Women who experienced psychological abuse totaled 73.9%, while 58.8% of women were in forced marriages, as distinct from arranged marriages. There were broad variations between provinces with 100% of Kochi women living in Kabul reporting at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence; 42.6% of women in Kandahar experiencing sexual violence; and 91.6% of women in Khost experiencing forced marriages.

violence against women in Afghanistan and the province of Kandahar

total violence

  • 87.2% | Afghanistan
  • 92.4% | Kandahar

physical violence

  • 52.4% | Afghanistan
  • 79.5% | Kandahar

psychological violence

  • 73.9% | Afghanistan
  • 92.7% | Kandahar

sexual violence

  • 17.2% | Afghanistan
  • 42.6% | Kandahar

forced marriage

  • 58.8% | Afghanistan
  • 87.5% | Kandahar
variations in violence by province

Possible reasons for higher incidences of domestic violence along the border zone include greater levels of armed conflict in this region as well as the influence of the Taliban with its oppressive ideology towards women. Insecurity limits the reach of the central government into these zones, restricting the availability of public services such as schools, hospitals, courts, and police forces, compared to the rest of the country. The availability of support services for victims of domestic violence is even scarcer than in other provinces as both local and international non-governmental organizations find it more difficult and dangerous to work in these areas.

Increased mental and physical health disorders associated with conflict, such as trauma, are also likely to lead to people turning to violence to resolve disputes with family members.

There is also some research to suggest that an environment of violent conflict exacerbates domestic violence and, in particular, conflict creates a “climate for rampant sexual violence.” Other factors influencing disparities in levels of violence between provinces that may not necessarily be associated with conflict and insecurity include differences in formal and informal justice system mechanisms available; the prevailing forms of customary law; local perceptions of domestic violence; the role of religious and community leaders in responding to violence; livelihood opportunities; and differences in socio-economic factors.

It was also suspected by some researchers that there may be cultural variations among women’s openness in speaking about issues of domestic violence.

women’s shelters

There are fewer than ten women’s shelters in the country, most with limited space and capacity, and few with even minimally acceptable international standards around the reception and treatment of victims of domestic violence.

There are four known women’s shelters in Kabul operated by independent women’s organizations, such as Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), Women for Afghan Women and Afghan Women’s Social and Cultural Development (AWSCD); one in Herat, the Gorzargah Transit Centre; one in Mazar-i-sharif operated by the Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan; and one in Bamiyan operated by the Shuhada Organization.

There are no known shelters in Kandahar or Jalalabad, despite the relatively large populations of these cities and the high rates of violence found in each from this research.

perpetrators of violence

Findings from the workshops and interviews with women’s organizations provided further evidence that women from the in-law family are frequently responsible for perpetrating abuse, encouraging the husband to beat his wife, or condoning the violence taking place.

It is of critical importance that advocacy and service organizations:

  1. recognize the role that women are playing in perpetuating abuse;
  2. identify entry points to dissuade women from abusing other women; and
  3. challenge behavior, attitudes and values which facilitate women’s mistreatment of other women.

Farah was accused by her husband of over-salting the meal at supper. Her husband beat her, and then tied her up in the basement of their home, where he beat her some more for several hours. He then forced their young son to violently penetrate his mother’s vagina with a stick as a punishment for shaming the husband in front of the dinner guests. In another case, Jamila had her sexual organs violently injured by her father-inlaw, who told his wife and daughter to hold Jamila’s legs open. He then forcefully penetrated her with sharp objects, accusing her of trying to attract other men. She bled severely from the assault and nearly died.

— Case Study, Noor Education Centre (NEC), names have been changed

mistreatment by family members
  • 30.6% – husband
  • 23.7% – mother-in-law
  • 16.5% – none of those listed
  • 10.4% – sister-in-law
  • 9.9% – brother-in-law
  • 7.4% – father-in-law
  • 1.5% – husband’s uncle
overall risk factors
  • The experience of one form of violence as it increases the likelihood of women experiencing other forms of violence
  • Being in a forced marriage
  • Being single through divorce or widowhood violence
  • Being in a polygamous marriage
  • Being under 15 years of age and married
  • Having rigid perceptions of gender roles
  • Living in rural communities
  • Living in the southern and eastern border provinces
protective factors
  • Employment of both women and men (at least in impacting upon forced marriage and physical violence)
  • Consenting to marriage
  • Literacy of both women and men
  • Knowing a husband prior to marriage
  • Enjoying a higher household income (at least when measured by proxy indicators of income)
  • Perceiving satisfactory gender relations in the home in Afghan society and being satisfied with one’s husband
  • Living in urban communities
  • Living in the northern and western provinces
other factors to consider
  • Husbands are not the sole abusers in families: mother-in-laws were identified as the main abuser by almost a quarter of the women surveyed.
  • Domestic violence is highly normalized in Afghan society: many women noted satisfactory marital relationships while simultaneously reporting experiences of violence in the home.
  • Almost a quarter of women were dissatisfied with relationships between men and women in the home in Afghan society. These women represent a force for change that can lead efforts to end domestic violence in the country if mobilized.
  • Only 18% of women knew other women who had been beaten by their husbands, suggesting that most women are isolated in their experiences of violence.
  • The lower likelihood of women experiencing violence in urban settings and in certain provinces may be associated with a stronger government presence and rule of law compared to rural communities and other provinces.
  • The higher likelihood of women experiencing violence in provinces where there is greater Taliban control suggests that oppressive ideology towards women may contribute to increased domestic violence.
  • The regions where women have a greater likelihood of experiencing violence are those with greater levels of armed conflict, suggesting linkages between community violence and violence in the family. Further research is needed to substantiate this observation.
  • Domestic violence is a rights violation in itself but also prevents women from exercising their civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights.
implications of the research findings for designing interventions to end domestic violence

Based on the risk, protective, and other factors listed above, Global Rights urges civil society organizations particularly, but also government and international organizations, to develop the following types of interventions to contribute towards preventing domestic violence:

  • Advocating for the State’s realization of the Constitutional protections to the Right to Education, particularly Article 44, which commits the State to providing programs to eliminate illiteracy;
  • Providing basic literacy training to both men and women as components of activities to reduce domestic violence in communities;
  • Increasing employment opportunities for men and women through a diversity of vocational training programs or micro-credit schemes to enable men and women to better generate income;
  • Providing opportunities for women to challenge rigid gender roles by learning how Islam, Afghan law and international human rights law safeguard gender equality and other women’s rights;
  • Targeting training and support services to divorced, widowed and other single women, with a focus on services to protect them from sexual violence;
  • Raising awareness about the frequency with which women are perpetrators of domestic violence and highlighting to women as well as men that such behavior constitutes a crime under Afghan law and under Islam;
  • Facilitating opportunities for women to talk about domestic violence so as to break the sense of many women that they are isolated in their experience of it;
  • Sending strong messages through public service announcements that violence is a crime under Afghan law and under Islam so as to challenge the normalization of violence;
  • Raising awareness about relationships between violence and a woman’s lack of knowledge of her husband before marriage to encourage families to allow their daughters to become better acquainted with their husbands prior to marriage, even if such marriages are arranged;
  • Advocating for an end to forced marriage, child marriage, and polygamy and the traditional practices that encourage them;
  • Ensuring that efforts to address domestic violence are not limited to urban centers but extend to rural regions and to provinces in the south-eastern border zones where the likelihood of violence tends to be higher than in other provinces;
  • Ensuring that any efforts to prevent, protect against, and punish violence against women involve women themselves in the design and implementation of activities so as to draw on their lived experiences and ensure effectiveness, but also to serve as a means of empowering women to take action to make positive changes in their lives; and
  • Advocating for the expansion and enforcement of the rule of law throughout the country to increase provision of formal justice mechanisms, the monitoring of informal justice mechanisms, and the availability of health, education and other government services.

Excerpted from LIVING WITH VIOLENCE: A National Report on Domestic Abuse in Afghanistan, with some minor edits and format changes. Reproduction is authorized provided that the text is for educational ends, not commercial use, and on the condition that credit is given to Global Rights.

Authors: Diya Nijhowne, M.S.W., J.D., Global Rights Program Officer for Afghanistan and Nepal | Lauryn Oates, M.A., Independent Consultant

With consultation from: Brett Stoudt, Statistician, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York | Mohammad Eshaq Faizi, Global Rights Program Officer, Afghanistan, | Naomi Cahn, Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School

ISBN: 0-9776098-9-8


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