Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Outrage Over Afghan Law

A law pending in Afghanistan appears to limit women's rights by actually legalizing marital rape and leaving the house without a male's permission was illegal. The wording is what struck me most, that it is the right of the man to have sex with his wife every fourth night (shown on CNN tonight). The idea of sexual and reproductive rights is one that warrants strong consideration. For example, the 1995 Beijing Conference (cited here) produced a Platform for Action stating
[t]the human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.
International human rights language makes clear that a woman has the right to decide when and how to use her body, not a man and not a relative. Furthermore,  it acknowledges "shared responsibility for sexual behaviors and its consequences." 

The Afghan law makes explicit that the desire of a husband to have sex trumps the rights of a wife to not want to have sex, this has enormous implications for legitimizing trauma and sexual violence (yes -- rape does happen within marriage -- no always means no), as well as has long term implications for family planning.

This case illustrates the enormous variability in conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights and decision-making in different contexts. An essay on intimate partner violence (IPV) from the Peaceful Families Project highlights that in Muslim culture 'marital rape' is considered a contradiction in terms.  And while this Afghan law aims to politically legitimize the practice, it is important to note that many women and girls experience sexual violence and will continue to regardless of this legislation. It will take a social movement to eliminate these horrid practices. Much like the women's movement in the US served to overturn laws in US states that  exempted spousal rape as a crime until the 1970s.

More must be done to empower girls and to oppose those who impose barriers. Obama and other international actors have spoken out against this legislation that comes with the signature of our Afghan ally (he signed it at the end of last month). The result of this international pressure is yet to be decided.

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