A new law in Afghanistan means men can attack their wives and daughters with impunity

The problem isn't just in Afghanistan. 30 per cent of woman suffer violence from an intimate partner, but globally laws do little to protect women at home.

According to the World Health Organisation, 35 per cent of women worldwide will experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. The vast majority of these incidents are perpetrated by an intimate partner: 30 per cent of women experience violence at the hands of their boyfriend or husband. Globally, 38 per cent of women who are murdered are killed by their partner. 

Many women might be scared to walk down dark alleys late at night, but statistically the most dangerous place for a woman to be is in her own home. It isn’t just our perception of danger that hasn’t quite caught up with this reality, internationally laws are far more likely to protect a woman from rape or attack by a stranger than by their husbands.

In Afghanistan, a new law will mean that men are able to attack their wives, daughters and sisters without fear of punishment. The new code means that family members are not allowed to testify against the accused. It’s a devastating step back for women’s rights in Afghanistan – and yet more evidence that for all the rhetoric that the removal of the Taliban would improve the lives of many women, the modest progress made by Afghan women in the past decade is at risk of reversal. 

According to the UN, 87 per cent of women in the country have suffered sexual, psychological or physical violence. Female MPs have become targets for violence, and not just from militant groups – in July MP Noor Zia Atmar moved into a shelter to escape her abusive husband. Under Afghanistan’s new law, she will not be able to testify against him in court.

But Afghanistan’s attitude towards domestic violence is not unusual. According to UN Women’s 2011 figures, while 125 countries outlaw domestic violence, 127 countries do not criminalise rape within marriage. 603 million women worldwide live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime, while more than 2.6 billion live in countries where marital rape is legal. Even in countries where marital rape is illegal, the barriers to women reporting and then successfully prosecuting their partner are high.

The countries that still don’t count marital rape as a crime include some of the world’s most populous: China, India, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia all lack laws specifically criminalising marital rape. Despite calls to increase the sentences imposed those found guilty of rape following the gang rape of a student in Delhi, which made international headlines in 2012, Indian lawmakers resisted criminalising marital rape in 2013.

Criminalising domestic violence and marital rape is only one small step towards ensuring that women are safe in their own homes. But robust legislation does send out an important signal, that the all-too-prevalent belief that husbands have a right to discipline their wives, force them into sex, or treat them abusively, is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

It’s also about a change of perspective. It’s far easier to want to protect women from the unknown other - the stranger in a dark, abandoned street - than to acknowledge that the men most women have greater cause to fear is their husband, father or brother.

Even in war-torn Afghanistan, home is one of the most dangerous places for a woman to be. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.