Violent crime against women in Afghanistan hit record levels and became increasingly brutal in 2013, the head of the country's human rights commission said this weekend — a sign that hard won rights are being rolled back as foreign troops prepare to withdraw.
Restoring women's rights after the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition of troops in 2001 has been frequently cited as one of the objectives of the war. Under Taliban rule, women were required to wear the head-to-toe covering burqa and barred from leaving their homes without being escorted by a male relative. Schools for girls were shut also down.
But advances towards greater freedoms for women in the country have been undermined by a worrying uptick in violence
The United Nations in December reported a 28 percent increase in cases of brutality against women for October 2012 through September 2013. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told Reuters that the severity of attacks on women had greatly intensified last year.
"The brutality of the cases is really bad. Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape," she said.
It is possible that more cases have been reported as women become aware of their rights, but Samar attributed the overall increase in crime to a culture of impunity and the imminent departure of international troops and aid workers, leaving women more exposed to attack.
"The presence of the international community and provincial reconstruction teams in most of the provinces was giving people confidence," Samar said. "There were people there trying to protect women. And that is not there anymore, unfortunately."
Most foreign forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year, and it is unclear whether any will remain beyond 2014 as relations deteriorate between Afghan authorities and their U.S. backers.
Women's rights advocates say a deteriorating economy and growing insecurity have contributed to the rise in reported incidents. They also point to evidence that laws aimed at protecting women have proven notoriously hard to implement.
The U.N. report found that Afghanistan's Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, implemented by presidential decree in 2009 to ban 22 harmful practices against women, was only applied in 17 percent of reported cases.
"Killing women in Afghanistan is an easy thing. There's no punishment," Suraya Pakzad, who runs women's shelters in several provinces, told Reuters in her office in the western city of Herat. She cited recent cases in which women had been publicly stoned as Afghan troops looked on.
"Laws are improved, but implementation of those laws are in the hands of warlords... I think we are going backwards," she said.
Another sign that rights for women have been rolled back in recent years is a rise in cases of self-immolation, a desperate last resort for women in abusive situations.
The burns unit of Herat hospital, one of two in Afghanistan, admitted a record number of women who had attempted to set themselves on fire in 2012. The head of the ward said he was reluctant to speak out because of threats from relatives.
"If they come with a high percentage of body surface burns... we cannot save them," said Dr. Ghafar Bawar. "After disfigurement, they have a very hard life."
Bawar also treated patients who had suffered burns in attacks from others. He agreed there was a culture of impunity and that some assaults were not reported to officials for fear of reprisal.
Bawar cited the case of a neighbor who had brought in a woman and her four-year old child the night before. The father had thrown a burning blanket over them as they slept, setting them alight.
Both died of their injuries, but the neighbor was too afraid to report the case to the authorities.