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Violence against women and girls: an ongoing pandemic and its effects in Afghanistan and the UK

Posted on 8 October 2021

International Day of the Girl – the time for positive reform and action on a national and international level.

Watching events in Afghanistan unfold, many people have been moved by the plight of Afghan women and girls, and the attempts by so many – particularly professional women and human rights activists – to escape the Taliban regime.

Closer to home, the position of many women has significantly worsened over the last 18 months, with UK domestic abuse charity Refuge reporting in March this year more than a 60% rise in calls to their helpline and an average of 700% more visitors to their website since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This, coupled with the recent announcement of an inquiry into failures leading to Sarah Everard's murder and a number of other arrests of serving police officers for sexual assaults, shows that violence against women and girls is an ongoing pandemic which has long been left untreated.

Life, and the threat of imminent death, under Taliban rule

Without action, the future is bleak for girls in Afghanistan. Currently, under Taliban rule girls may not go to school or university; they may not work outside of the home; they may not sing songs or play music; they are not allowed to play sports; they may not express their own views if these are contrary to Taliban ideologies or challenge the views of others; they are banned from speaking on the television, in media, or at any large event – indeed the very word 'women' is censored, with place names being altered to remove its reference. If they do so, they risk physical punishment – even death. These are their present threats to life and living.

When they grow up they face more of the same. Currently, many professional women and human rights activists have had to flee their homes, moving from place to place being hunted. It is not only they that are targets and under threat of torture and murder – but their entire families, and anyone associated with them. For professional women, human rights activists and girls in Afghanistan – this is their everyday reality under the Taliban regime.

While many at-risk Afghans were evacuated in military-led operations like Operation Pitting, many have been left behind; facing an unenviable future – the risk of death if they remain in their homeland, but uncertain of their evacuation route and welcome elsewhere. Resettlement schemes announced by the UK government have faced delays and lack of meaningful engagement from officials – with Mishcon de Reya urging the government to intervene to save lives, or face legal action.

Those who have been working to hold the UK government to their promises have borne witness – although second-hand – to the peril faced by those left in Afghanistan. However, despite the hourly terror they endure, we have received countless courteous, grateful and warm messages from those most at risk – all sent while in hiding or on the run. Their humanity shines through – one apologised for a delay in replying as she had had to flee one safe-house for another as one of her compatriots had been captured by a Taliban revenge unit, fleeing while suffering with severe toothache; another Afghan judge said he preferred not to send us videos or images of the beheadings and public tortures taking place because he worried they would upset us – despite this evidence being helpful to him being classed as 'at risk' and therefore eligible for evacuation.

While this is a developing situation, we hope that the pressure brought to bear by international organisations, and on governments like the UK, will result in positive action that will ensure the safety of those at risk.

The untold, and often undocumented, levels of violence against women and girls in the UK

Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, recently said, "I will do all I can to improve women's safety and reduce the fear of violence…I would like to say the murder of a woman in London is rare. Sadly, I cannot.". She said this while announcing an inquiry into the culture and behaviour of the police force after Sarah Everard's kidnap, rape and murder by a serving police officer, and separate charges against policemen for rape. However, violence against women and girls is not a London-based issue; nor is it new; nor are the perpetrators confined to one set of individuals. It is not just systemic or endemic, it is a pandemic.

Statistics only tell so much, and are merely the tip of the iceberg – with countless instances of domestic abuse going unreported due to fear of reprisals, feeling trapped, fear of not being believed, and many other reasons. Even then, one in ten of all offences recorded by the police are domestic abuse related. What the figures do show is that levels of violence have sky-rocketed since the beginning of 2020 – it is not hard to understand why; with the United Nations predicting there would be 15 million more cases worldwide of domestic abuse during the pandemic. Refuge, the UK domestic abuse charity, reported during April 2020 to February 2021 they received an average of more than 13,162 calls and contacts per month – compared to 8,176 per month between January and March 2020. With lockdown restrictions easing around the world, campaigners fear that there will be a further rise in cases when socialising, returning to the office or schoolroom and other more 'normal' activities return. In April of this year the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 became law, with the aim of not only providing more support to the millions in the UK subject to domestic abuse – including children, but to strengthen measures tackling those who commit offences. However, many campaigners have noted that the Act does not go far enough – particularly concerning the position of migrant women.

A call to action – if not now, when

Now more than ever is a time for positive reform and action on a national and international level. Today, 11 October, we mark International Day of the Girl – a day to highlight girls' rights and the challenges they face world-wide, helping educate and bring attention. This article spotlights one main right: the right to live free from the fear of violence and abuse. A right that belongs to all.

You can be part of this positive action by:

  • Signing this petition asking the government to act to protect those at risk in Afghanistan, which Baroness Kennedy is hoping to personally deliver to the Prime Minister.
  • Donating here. The funds will be used to provide emergency safe houses, food and supplies, phone credit and evacuation transport costs for targeted Afghans and their families.
  • Fundraising for the refugees – from a sporting challenge to an event at work/home.
  • Learning more about the situation in Afghanistan from the UN Refugee Agency.
  • Get involved in the work Refuge does, or donate directly to them.
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