Psychological Underpinnings of Violence against Women in Afghanistan ☆

| June 26, 2012

Violence against women (VAW)  refers to any act that harms or threatens to harm women psychologically, physically, sexually, or economically. In other words, gender based violence can be defined as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” (United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993). It may be carried out by a wide variety of perpetrators ranging from  spouse to the gangs, and  may occur in various forms. A common form of VAW is perpetrated by the intimate partner that is referred to as the intimate partner violence (IPV) or domestic violence. Although gender-based violence is a global problem, cutting across cultures, countries and social classes, it is more pronounced in Afghanistan. An in-depth understanding of its etiology, contributing factors and related mechanisms would be essential to design effective interventions and violence-prevention campaigns.

As pointed out by Heise (1998), multiple individual, situational and socio-cultural influences interact to generate this problem. 1) Individual factors include the developmental history and personality of the individual. For example, an individual who witnessed  or experienced violence in his childhood, tends to perpetrate violence in adulthood. 2)Situational factors include family conditions and relationship dynamics. For example, in a family where male dominance is valued and the decision making power and financial authority is restricted to the male, it is more likely for the VAW to occur. Similarly, family conflicts may  precipitate the occurrence of VAW. 3) Socio-cultural factors inlclude  traditional beliefs and rigid misogynistic gender-role attitudes giving a subordinate status to women, and supremacy to men.

Women in Afghanistan have suffered tremendously over the past few decades.  A partial explanation could be traditional rigid gender role attitudes and protracted armed conflict and its consequences such as poverty and illiteracy; however, this multifaceted phenomenon is produced by the interplay of several determinants acting at multiple levels. To explain the mechanism underlying VAW in Afghanistan, let’s examine the social learning theory of VAW (Heise, 1998).

Based on this theory,  boys who witness inter-parental violence, experience physical abuse, or observe violence-supportive behaviors in the community  learn that violence is an effective strategy to exert control. Therefore, they acquire certain violence facilitating attitudes and tend to become adult perpetrators.  In other words, as they grow up, they are socialized into believing that they are entitled to control women, even with violence as an instrument.  In fact, when a child in Afghanistan witnesses such violent behaviors in the family and community, they learn it through modeling and are likely to manifest the same violent behavior against women in their future intimate partner relationships. This creates a vicious circle that maintains violence-supporting attitudes across generations (Flood & Pease, 2009). In addition, the experience or witness of violence leaves emotional and personality scars that, in turn, promote adherence to violence-supporting attitudes. Similarly, when girls are victims of violence or witness violent treatment of women, they tend to be silent when they encounter violence in future. Indeed, VAW can lead to immense consequences including physical disability, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, low self-esteem developmental delay, unwanted pregnancy, STDs, poor income and so forth.

Based on the  mechanisms alluded to earlier, an effective intervention strategy needs to be a multidimensional approach that addresses the issue at many levels. Given the traditional nature of Afghanistan, engaging the village elders and religious leaders in a campaign against VAW would be of paramount importance.  Promoting women’s rights literacy through local media outlets  and educational settings  would be a good step. In addition, a good intervention modality would provide prompt biopsychosocial service to address the consequences of VAW.


Flood, M. and Pease, B. (2009) Factors influencing attitudes to violence against women. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 10, 125–142. Heise, L. L. (1998). Violence against women: An integrated, ecological framework. Violence Against Women 4, 262-290.