What President Ashraf Ghani Should Do to Reassure Afghan Women

Afghan women's rights activists hold flowers as they gather at the grave of 27-year-old Farkhunda in Kabul March 26, 2015. The lynching of the woman by a mob in the Afghan capital continued to fuel public anger on Thursday, as residents gathered at the site of her death to protest a week after the killing. Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

If Afghan women were feeling safe before, they aren't now. The brutal murder of a young woman by a mob in the middle of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, on March 20 shook many women to the core.

Farkhunda, a 27-year old student, was set upon by a mob responding to a false claim that she had burned a copy of the Koran. The mostly young men beat her, ran her over with a car and then dragged her body into a riverbed and set it on fire. Dozens of onlookers filmed the attack on their cellphones, and then displayed the horrifying footage on Facebook.

Adding to the horror, footage shows police present while Farkhunda was still fighting for her life. Farkhunda's family and local activists are demanding to know why, if the police were there, they didn't intervene effectively and prevent her brutal death. Anger and grief have turned to broader public outrage, with marches in a number of Afghan cities.

The Afghan government has taken important steps to arrest Farkhunda's killers and sacked 20 police for their failure to protect her. However, this case should prompt a broader and more long-term response by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Sadly, Farkhunda's murder was only exceptional in that it was a highly visible example of the violence that women in Afghanistan far too commonly endure.

Female activists and women in public life routinely face threats and violence, including murder. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women report enduring abuse in their lifetime. Domestic violence, child marriage, forced marriage, suicide, self-immolation, sexual violence arrrrnd so-called "honor killings" are a daily reality.

The 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (the EVAW Law) promised important reforms, but government enforcement has been weak. Meanwhile, women who flee abuse, including rape victims, continue to be wrongly imprisoned for so-called "moral crimes" and subjected to abusive and medically meaningless "virginity examinations."

Ghani, in office since September 2014, has spoken supportively of women's rights. But his government has yet to take meaningful steps to end the impunity for violence against women that was pervasive under the previous government.

Now, as protests continue over Farkhunda's murder, Ghani has a groundswell of support to take action. He should seize the moment and order police and prosecutors to vigorously enforce the EVAW Law, and to end abusive prosecutions for "moral crimes." He should also order a complete end to "virginity examinations" and launch a major new effort to recruit and retain female police officers.

This would be a fitting memorial to Farkhunda.

Heather Barr is a senior researcher on women's rights in Asia in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch. This article first appeared on the Human Rights Watch website.