The killing of Sushmita Banerjee and Afghanistan’s ‘war on women’

By Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan researcher at Amnesty’s International Secretariat in London, England

Her body ridden with bullets and left on the outskirts of Paktika province in Afghanistan, Sushmita Banerjee’s killing was horrifying but, sadly, not surprising.

The Indian woman had escaped captivity under the Taliban in 1995 and went on to write a book about her experiences.

Authorities in Afghanistan now say they have arrested two men over the killing, in a move that is unusual for cases of violence against women.

For well over a year, we have seen many reported cases of beatings, disfigurations, kidnappings and killings of women and girls across the country – particularly in rural areas.

Women and girls are targeted by their partners, relatives and armed groups, including the Taliban, sometimes in broad daylight. However, no one in power seems to be paying much attention.

For many women, the only option is silence. If they dare to report abuse or even try to escape their abusers, they will most likely be killed. And even for the activists who try to help them, speaking out can be fatal.

Among the many women I met during my latest visit to Afghanistan was Noorzia Atmar, a former member of parliament whose husband had slashed her throat, nearly killing her. Noorzia finally escaped to a secret shelter where she initiated the paperwork to get a divorce. After many months of negotiations, her husband agreed to it, on the condition that if she was ever killed, he wouldn’t be prosecuted. The court agreed.

If this can happen to a woman in a position of authority, how much worse must it be for the millions of women and girls living across rural Afghanistan, out of the public eye?

The Afghan authorities seem to be doing little more than publicly expressing outrage at the stories that reach the headlines and promising to investigate, prosecute and punish the attackers. But, in most cases, such pledges ring hollow as crimes against women are very rarely properly investigated and those responsible are virtually never brought before the courts.

When even judges don’t dare put their necks on the line to protect women, hope quickly evaporates.

Besides the Taliban, women suffer abuse at the hands of their own husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins – simply because the men know they can get away with it. They know no one will stop them, and every time a woman is beaten, burned or killed and those responsible – if they are prosecuted at all – might in rare occasions be imprisoned for a few months and then walk away free, it only bolsters the message that such violence is allowed.

But there are many things that could be done to prevent more of these horrific crimes and the fear they sow amongst Afghan women and girls.

In 2009 Afghanistan enacted a law for the elimination of violence against women, which would make a world of difference if courts across the country would commit to fully implementing it.

But perhaps even more importantly, things would really start to change if the Afghan authorities would invest the necessary time and resources to educate prosecutors, judges, police and the general public on the fact that abusing women is, simply, illegal and punishable. They all must understand, once and for all, that every woman – no more, no less than every man – has a basic human right to study, work, express her opinions and generally live the life she chooses, free from violence and intimidation.

Until that happens, tragic killings such as that of Sushmita Banerjee will continue to be treated as mere statistics.