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5 February 2014

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.

By Sophie McBain

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.

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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.