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Breaking Silence around Violence against Afghan Women and Girls

Introduction

Discourse Afghanistan together with the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), a women’s rights organisation based in London, invited professionals and members of the Afghan community, both male and female to a Discourse Hour discussion on silence around abuse in the UK Afghan community against women and girls.

IKWRO, which was founded in 2002 provide advice, counselling and referral services for women and girls affected by “honour” based violence, domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). Initially IKWRO worked predominantly with Farsi and Kurdish speaking women and girls. Owing to demand within other diaspora, Afghan community, for culturally specific support and with the endorsement of members of the communities, IKWRO expanded its expert team to include women from across the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan and now assists women and girls in seven languages. IKWRO has both Dari and Pashto speaking advisers. IKWRO campaigns to raise awareness as well as for better laws and policies and for their effective implementation. IKWRO also advises public facing professionals and sits as independent adviser on a number of government and non-government expert groups. Last year IKWRO assisted over 780 women and girls through intensive face-to-face casework and advised more than 2500 women, girls and professionals by telephone. IKWRO’s work as a leading UK women’s rights charity was this year recognised when it’s founder and Executive Director Diana Nammi was celebrated as Woman of the Year.

Key definitions

Domestic violence and abuse:

Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to; psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional and controlling behaviour.

Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

Honour based violence:

Involves one or more acts predominantly against women and girls, often collectively organised by the victim’s/survivor’s family or community, to defend their perceived honour, because it is believed that the person has done something to bring shame on the family or the community.

It can take many forms including but not limited to; “honour” killing, forced marriage, rape (group), forced suicide, acid attack, mutilation, abduction imprisonment, beating, death threat, blackmail, emotional abuse, surveillance, harassment, disownment and forced abortion.

Forced marriage

A marriage conducted without the valid consent of one or both parties and where duress is a factor. ‘Valid consent’ is “free and full consent” and duress may include violence, threat or “any other form of coercion”. A person may not have the mental capacity to consent mental to give free and full consent. The pressure put on people to marry against their will can be physical (including threats, actual physical violence and sexual violence) or emotional and psychological (for example, when someone is made to feel like they are bringing shame on their family). Financial abuse (taking wages or not giving victims any money) can also be a factor.

Background

Through it’s extensive and intensive casework outreach experience, IKWRO has found with every community that it works with, that speaking openly about violence against women is considered by many to be taboo. With regards to the Afghan community, IKWRO has found the silence on the topic to be particularly pronounced. IKWRO believes that open constructive dialogue within the community is crucial to tackling violence against women and girls. In order to learn about how best to encourage this process IKWRO sought to learn from the participants of Discourse Hour today, as representatives of the UK Afghan community, about their thoughts on the following questions:

  1. Is there a problem of silence within the UK Afghan community around violence against women and girls?
  2. What are the reasons for this problem?
  3. Do you have any ideas about how to break the silence and ensure women get the help that they need?

Is there a problem of silence within the UK Afghan community around violence against women and girls?

Firstly a discussion was held about whether there is an issue of violence against women and girls within the UK Afghan community.

The point was made by a participant that one can argue that there is violence against women and girls in all communities and referred to reading a publication from a large UK based domestic violence charity, which has reported high numbers of cases of domestic violence in ‘white, upper-class’ communities.

IKWRO concurred that it is absolutely correct to say that domestic violence is a significant issue in all communities of all ethnicities and economic backgrounds globally. Within the UK, Women’s Aid, one of the leading mainstream domestic violence charities, states that one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute and it is known that domestic violence remains heavily under-reported and on average two women per week are killed by a current or former male partner.

The discussion moved on to recognise that certain forms of violence against women and girls are more common within, although not limited to, certain communities. For example, “honour” based violence, which tends to occur mostly in communities which observe the “honour” code. It was agreed, with reflection upon individual cases that participants had heard of and on the basis of IKWRO’s casework experience, that “honour” based violence is a problem both within the UK and within the Afghan UK community. IKWRO shared the only available national statistics on “honour” based violence, which the organisation obtained through freedom of information requests to the police. In 2010 32 out of the 52 police forces confirmed that they had handled a total of 2823 reports of “honour” based violence and in 2012 it was found that more than 1 in 5 police forces were not properly recording “honour” based violence cases. Data on the ethnicity breakdown was not provided.

IKWRO shared the figures of the UK government’s Forced Marriage Unit which in 2013 received referrals for 1302 cases, of which 2.8% were Afghan.

It is widely acknowledged that the number of reported cases of “honour” based violence and forced marriage are very much the tip of the iceberg of the true figure. This is likely to be because there are many barriers to reporting facing women and girls including but not limited to; language difficulties, a lack of knowledge about their rights, a lack of understanding of how to access and use the systems and procedures and a distrust of the police inherited from experience of or the reputation of police within Afghanistan.

One participant of the discussion today felt that there was hope that Afghan women would use services, referring to the situation within Afghanistan where they said the Afghan government set up an initiative in 2003 whereby refuges were established around the country and currently all of these refuges are full. They suggested that this demonstrates that services will be utilised, but the exact conditions and circumstances surrounding them are not fully known.

There was some agreement from participants that abuse of women and girls is more common in less educated families. It was suggested that this may be because they are less aware of the consequences of abuse. However it was also said that abuse of women did also occur within more educated families. A counterargument was that domestic violence was as prominent in   educated families, as this group of people find their self somewhat more qualified to justify their actions.

Another thought put forward was that low reporting can be explained by other members of the family discouraging it so as to maintain silence, due to the fear that gossip would bring shame on the family.

It was suggested at this point that given the level of pressure to stay silent, lessons can be learned from those who have fought back by examining what it was that prompted them to do so.

IKWRO took on board the discussion around education whilst saying that it is important to note that DV cuts across sections of society, and that perpetrators as well as those who suffer abuse, can be of any class, education background, religion, sexuality, race as well as gender. However it was agreed that education about rights, the system and responsibilities is crucial.

 

What are the reasons for this problem?

Focussing on Afghan women and girls themselves who experience abuse, particularly those who are fairly new arrivals to the UK, it was thought that they may have negative cultural perceptions of the police. Some women may be reluctant to report due to their own or others’ negative experiences reporting domestic abuse in Afghanistan.

It was also suggested that there is a lack of awareness among Afghans in the UK of the help that is available and of organisations that offer services like IKWRO as well as awareness about the resources available to live independently.

It was agreed that there is a problem of a lack of awareness among women and girls impacted by violence of the right to live without fear. Many have migrated in the last two decades and therefore will not have been educated in the UK, some may be illiterate and despite wanting assistance, may not know where to go to access it.

It was thought that with increased awareness, they are more likely to access services, but there will be concerns around confidentiality and as such a fear of the consequences of seeking advice or taking any action. If women are made aware of organisations that can promise anonymity/confidentiality they will be inclined to access services, this is particularly so in cases of “honour” based violence where the risk significantly increases if other members of the community find out about the information shared.

Further ideas were that a history of physical violence may normalise a person’s experience of it and they may consider seeking a remedy from an external agency as unnecessary. This may be related to the worry of bringing an outsider into an inside (family) problem. Looking at Afghan culture, a woman is often regarded as one to be revered if she is capable of tolerance and if she remains loyal to her family. Sharing information about abuse within the family would be regarded as a betrayal thus presenting a huge barrier to seeking help from services. Likewise in some instances Afghan men are encouraged to take pride in the ability to command their wives and control the female members of the family. Growing up amongst violence in a war torn country may also impact attitudes towards violence as will attitudes displayed by community or religious leaders who may condone violence or the subordination of, or discrimination against, women.

 

Do you have any ideas about how to break the silence and ensure women get the help that they need?

 

It was acknowledged that there were significant challenges. It was said that the Afghan community is generally a patriarchal one and there will be resistance to anything that challenges that, as with any other movements against patriarchy.

All agreed on the importance of empowering women through information on how to exercise their rights.

There was wide agreement that there needs to be more of an emphasis on men’s engagement in the process through active participation which might be achieved through trainings/seminars/workshops on healthy relationships. It was agreed that clear and firm messages ought to be sent to men that abuse is a crime for which they may be locked up or which may lead to separation from their children.

It was suggested by several members that it is also worth considering the role of the older generation and the need for them to feel the necessity to adapt to systems in the UK.

There was hope among the group that as the younger generation will be better integrated and therefore equipped with the information they require to stand up for themselves. An example was given about heightened awareness around child abuse following extensive campaigning within schools

IKWRO spoke about their Right To Know Campaign and explained that currently schools are not obliged to teach young people about their right not to face abuse and their responsibility not to be abusers but IKWRO strongly advocated that they should. The group were invited to support the campaign on social media.

It was suggested that as many Afghan community members visit the mosque regularly particularly during Friday prayers, this might be a good opportunity to access people, particularly the male population of the community and to set women’s rights on the agenda.

Accessing Afghan media was also suggested and IKWRO welcomed any contacts being forwarded.

A discussion was had about whether or not involving Afghan celebrities might be beneficial or potentially harmful to the cause and there was some disagreement on this. Some felt that messages on this issue might not be well received through celebrities.

Finally, we spoke about whether Discourse Hour participants could make a difference on this issue. IKWRO felt that they could all make a huge impact as ambassadors for positive social change. It was agreed that all members have the potential to influence change and were all well connected within the community. Many members of the group expressed enthusiasm and IKWRO concluded by thanking Discourse Afghanistan for their important insight and welcoming ongoing dialogue and collaboration with Afghans on this matter.

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