Youth parliament members in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo © S. Omer Sadaat

It’s extremely taboo for most women to discuss or seek out support for gender-based violence publicly or in the community. This is often seen as a last-ditch effort if the abuse is either extremely violent, or if negotiation between family members fails. UNDP LOTFA, together with our partners Zinc Network and Magenta, recently conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people in Kabul (70% women and 30% men –57% and 60% of whom were married) and found that most women reported preferring to discuss the problem with relatives, with very few saying that they would reach out to institutions, civil society organisations (CSOs), or other community members.

In general, most Afghans state a belief that gender-based violence (GBV) is wrong - both a moral failure and a potential source of shame. Yet its prevalence is high.

A much higher than expected proportion of respondents agreed that women should seek help outside the home (76%). Yet, the biggest barriers were a lack of permission or support from family members to seek out services, the stigma associated with using these services, mobility issues – mostly permissions to move around freely without permission from their husbands in order to access services. Fear of further violence was mentioned several times, as well. Women said that using GBV services could result in ‘more harm than good’, instigating further violence within the home.

In simple terms, our research has uncovered several key insights and social/behavioural barriers to be overcome. It is evident that Afghan women still face substantial barriers to accessing justice mechanisms (formal and informal) and related support services despite the progress over the past two decades. The research tells us also that making quality services (e.g. psychosocial support and/or legal aid) available or encouraging disclosure and/or reporting of GBV would not be effective or ethical given the current environment (which discourages going outside of the home).

Human rights and formal justice institutions are not viewed favourably. Women said that approaching these bodies could worsen their situations, as they are unlikely to help and there have been instances where victims were returned to their families without support. As such, reporting of GBV is very low, and amongst those that do report, justice outcomes tend to focus on family/community reconciliation, with little consideration to survivors’ wants and needs.

Men are stringently against women seeking the support of formal bodies, civil society organisations (CSOs), or human rights institutions. Many feel that this brings shame to their families. Some believe that these institutions and committees are controlled by foreign or western bodies and do not trust them.

While we continue to strengthen capacities of formal and informal justice institutions and improve service delivery through our LOTFA-supported projects. We acknowledge that challenges abound to shift community level perceptions of GBV and of the survivor, the perpetrator, and the service providers.

In a way, the practice has been normalized. Deeply ingrained gender roles mean that women are regarded as almost solely responsible for maintaining peace and harmony within the household. When peace and harmony is compromised, women are often blamed and treated as if they were the perpetrator. Going outside of the household is regarded as a failure both internally (it reflects badly on one’s own abilities to resolve family issues) and externally (community members will impose judgement / social sanctions if they find out).

Thus, as a first step, we need to help people resolve this issue from within the household, but harness fear of social stigmatisation as a motivator for accessing confidential GBV services.

To do this, UNDP LOTFA – together with our partners - is developing social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) campaigns aiming to (i) reduce the perceived cultural acceptability of violence, (ii) encourage more open conversation about GBV in the home, and (iii) destigmatize the use of GBV support services by targeting perpetrators, survivors and potential victims and those around them with a range of campaign assets. The campaigns will be launched in early January 2021.

SBCC is not new. SBCC integrates best practices from disciplines such as behaviour change communication, social psychology, human-centred design, anthropology, behavioural economics, social marketing and other behavioural sciences. Whilst SBCC is not new, it has not before been utilised in a large-scale project in the police, security, and justice sectors in Afghanistan.

Therefore, the LOTFA approach is innovative and aims to test the utility and efficacy of a new approach in an increasingly hostile environment.

Over the next 6 months we will be developing more research and implementation activities. We are piloting a range of SBCC activities with Australia (DFAT) funds. We consider this as a very exciting, new approach to intervention, and would be delighted to have a dialogue and exchange ideas with those who are interested in this approach and would like to be part of our SBCC interventions.

[NB: the content of this article is a collective contribution of UNDP LOTFA, Zinc Network and Magenta]

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About the Author:

Kwanpadh Suddhi-Dhamakit (“Kwan”) has more than 15 years of public policy advisory services in various fields. In Afghanistan, he is the M&E Team Lead for one of UNDP’s largest programmes – Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA) – where he developed a bespoke LOTFA M&E system moving away from static, paper-based M&E and data collection/analysis to a more real-time, centralized system with data visualization to support adaptive management of results and change.

Before joining UNDP Afghanistan in June 2019, he was the Team Leader on Strategic Result, Partnership and Innovation in UNDP Myanmar. He has also worked as a Human Development Program Specialist at the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region, as a Senior Consultant at KPMG, Thailand Central Bank as well as Ministry of Finance’s Treasury Reserve Cash Forecasting System.

He graduated from the London School of Economics; has a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews, UK; and was a Research Fellow in the Public Policy and Policy Analysis at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

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