Afghanistan: Speaking up against domestic violence

In Afghanistan's pervasive culture of violence, women and girls are powerless to resist being traded to settle family disputes and debts; rape and abduction; and forced marriages. Violence is widely tolerated by the community.
Fear of conservative backlash has tempered official attempts to change male perceptions of women, and overcome traditional and customary practices which repress women's rights.
Afghanistan's new constitution in 2004 enshrines gender equality, but there is a lack of explicit protection and promotion of women's rights.

Still, women and youth have begun to speak out after years of extreme repression. An unusual radio and print campaign has week after week this year, aired views of ordinary people, experts and the authorities on the illegality and immorality of domestic violence.

A project of The Killid Group (TKG), an independent Afghan media company, it targets the rich and the poor; the illiterate and the educated; rural and urban, men and women.

"Family violence is an ugly word, a terrible disease," fumed Qalandar Ahadi from Shebergan district in northern Jawzgan province. "Our country is suffering from this disease," rued the young man, who said he has never missed a programme.

"We have to start changing the customs and behaviour of our own family first. Slowly, others will join in," appealed Sahra Ahadi who wants to help women living in rural Afghanistan. "They don't have support," she pleaded in a survey on listeners' reactions to the programmes - a mixture of dramas, interviews, round table discussions and reportage.

Killid's overall objective is to highlight the twin facts that domestic violence rates are out of control in Afghanistan, and that something needs to be done because there is simply no room for domestic brutality in a nation that is seeking peace.

"The reality is that the long years of war, displacement, and poverty combined with some cultural beliefs which sanction corporal punishment within the home, seem to have produced the notion that domestic violence is somehow OK," said project coordinator Guilda Chahverdi. "But it isn't because people want to air their grievances!" she added.

Killid reporters have interviewed dozens of brutalised people who throng the Ministry of Women Affairs' durbar (public court) every Monday and Thursday seeking justice. "People are ready to talk; they may want to be anonymous but they are very keen that their stories are publicised," said Chahverdi.

The broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, the two most widely spoken Afghan languages, are repeated several times for maximum impact over Killid Radio in Kabul and Herat, and 14 community radio networks in the provinces that are partners in TKG's European Commission funded ‘Media campaign against domestic violence' project.

From January to June, the programmes focused on identifying the different forms of domestic violence, while from July to year-end the theme that is being explored is the legal aspects of dealing with the problem -- like the position of Shariah or Islamic law on abuse in marriage which was the subject of discussion in September, and where to seek assistance and how in November.

There is warm praise from listeners. "Your programmes have several forms and shades, which make them interesting," observed Zia Rehman from Faizabad district in northern Badakshan province who is a regular listener of Radio Aamu, a TKG partner. "They are beneficial. Please keep on broadcasting," he said.

In August, the special focus of the daily radio spots, weekly dramas and monthly round-table discussion was law and family violence. How to enforce laws against forced and child marriages; and rights to education and freedom of expression, for instance. And, how cultural practices that sanction patriarchy and family violence have to be challenged.

One radio report was a heartbreaking interview with a woman who left home with her teenage daughter who had been raped by her husband's family. "Both were in Kabul's infamous Phul-i-Charki jail, locked away on fabricated charges, because the criminal justice system will not stand up for the right of a woman in Afghanistan," said Chahverdi.

The same month, a host of top bureaucrats and legal experts were invited to discuss aspects of the legal framework: Shakila Afzalyar, assistant director in the Ministry of Women's Affairs; Qassim Akhgar from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission; and Fazel Wahab, director of the Supreme Court Council, among others.

Killid's capacity to effectively address issues of post-war transition has ensured ready civil society and government participation. Conversely, the Killid Radio and magazines, Mursal and Killid Weekly, provide them with the largest possible audience at the local, regional and national levels for anti-domestic violence messages.

An evaluation conducted in April voted Killid's in-house, 7-minute drama productions as the most popular. Chahverdi who is a French theatre actor of Iranian origin, has put together a very talented team of seven actors including separate Dari and Pashto scriptwriters. In addition, there are daily wage actors on the roster, including a 16-year-old schoolboy, Wahid Ousman Khel, who landed up at her office after hearing the plays.

"Thank you for your broadcasts. We like the dramas best," wrote two young women, Breshna and Shapiray from Sayadabad district in eastern Mardan-e-Wardak province. "We listen to your domestic violence programmes, especially the dramas. The situations and cases presented are close to our lives," confessed Mir Wais and his friends in a letter to Killid.

A nascent effort to address domestic violence in Afghanistan has shown some results.

Ann Ninan, IPS, 12 December 2006