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Efforts to protect Afghan women are failing, UN reports

More than 17 years after the Taliban was defeated, a process to protect women from violence still struggles to take hold, according to a new report from the United Nations. Afghanistan authorities largely rely on traditional mediation councils to resolve criminal cases against women.

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Afghan women arrive at a voter registration center for the parliamentary and district council elections in Kabul on April 23, 2018. Despite some progress, Afghanistan is sitll ranked near bottom of the United Nation's Development Program's Gender Inequality Index.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

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A law meant to protect Afghan women from violence is being undermined by authorities who routinely refer even serious criminal cases to traditional mediation councils that fail to protect victims, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, passed in 2009, was a centerpiece of efforts to improve protection for Afghan women, who suffer widespread violence in one of the worst countries in the world to be born female.

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But its effectiveness has been weakened by continued reliance on mediation by local elders to resolve violent crime.

"The wide use of mediation when a woman or girl has been beaten, mutilated, or murdered, or when she has been the victim of that awful concept of 'honor killing', normalizes such violence and makes it much more likely to recur," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

"To use mediation for such offenses is at its core a human rights violation by the State," Mr. Al Hussein said in a statement accompanying a United Nations report, entitled "Injustice and Impunity: Mediation of Criminal Offences against Women."

In many remote parts of Afghanistan, where the formal legal system has no sway, mediation is the only form of justice, but the UN report focused on cases reported to the authorities.

No comment was immediately available from the office of Afghanistan's attorney general.

Improving the situation of women in Afghanistan has been a priority for Western donors, who have pumped billions of dollars into the country.

But more than 17 years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the report underlines the still-dire situation facing many women in Afghanistan, which ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme's Gender Inequality Index.

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Tuesday's report was based on 237 cases of violence against women and 280 cases of murder in 2016 and 2017, including murders within families sometimes called "honor killings."

It found such crimes appeared to enjoy "de facto immunity," fostered by a reliance on mediation, with just 18 percent of cases ending in conviction and a prison sentence.

"The resolution of such cases by mediation must never occur; and cases should be prosecuted under the applicable general murder articles in order to end impunity," it said.

The report highlighted problems successive Afghan governments have had in building a functioning judicial system in a country that has traditionally relied heavily on religious leaders or elders to settle disputes.

It said many women faced pressure from family members and even some legal groups set up under the EVAW law to withdraw complaints or accept mediation. Victims' rights were not a priority, and were even disregarded outright.

This story was reported by Reuters.