The story of Zaynab, (a name adopted to conceal her identity) an 18-year-old mother of five who has taken refuge in a new women’s shelter in the capital Kabul, illustrates how routinely women continue to suffer rights violations in conservative, patriarchal Afghanistan.
She fled her home after refusing to put up with any more beatings from her husband, less than three weeks after giving birth to her youngest son.
“My father forcibly married me to an old man when I was 11 and my husband treated me like a slave over the last seven years,” she said, while sewing a blanket in the shelter, located in an upmarket suburb of the capital.
But Zaynab and the 20 other women she shares the facility with are the lucky few out of millions of destitute Afghan women. The small group have managed to find sanctuary from widespread physical violence, forced marriage, honour killings and other violations in ultra-conservative rural Afghanistan.
Zaynab’s leg was broken when her husband threw her out of a window. The torment ended when she managed to escape from the hospital where she was being treated, leaving her children behind. “This is the new pain I must bear, living without my family, but I had no other option. I knew he would never change.”
“I put on men’s clothes and a turban to hide my long hair and to look like a man, because it is extremely dangerous and difficult for women to travel by themselves,” she added, describing her escape.
Throughout the whole country, there are just four shelters, all in the capital, that are home to more than 100 women and girls. Supported by different agencies and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA), the confidential centres are designed to give protection, accommodation, food, training and healthcare to women who are escaping violence in the home or are seeking legal support due to family feuds.
“Often they are introduced to MoWA by the office of the attorney general or supreme court, while sometimes they come directly to our ministry,” Shakila Afzalyar, a legal officer at the ministry, told IRIN.
All the women IRIN interviewed at the shelter said they had broken no laws, but were fleeing from brutality or forced marriages. Afghanistan’s new constitution guarantees equality before the law for men and women, but the reality, the women point out, is very different.
A girl at the shelter, Paikai, just 12 years old, said she was compelled to marry the brother of her fiancé, who died before marrying her.
“They paid some money and gave a car to my father, but I did not like the man and escaped,” she said. She added that she had heard from a local radio station that there was a women’s affairs ministry in the capital, which heard the complaints of women, “that idea helped me make the final decision.”
“Women are used as a means for settling disputes between two families or tribes,” she said, adding that she did not want to return to her village, where they treated women “like animals”.
“I have nowhere to return to, I like it here, because there is a literacy course and at least I don’t see and hear those arrogant men,” she sighed.
The statistics are worrying, the ministry says. Afzalyar said that up to 20 women and girls were referred to MoWA’s legal department every day, mostly complaining of physical violations and forced marriages.
But space at the specialised shelters is limited. Many of the women who cannot find a place in the four secure hostels in Kabul end up in prison. More than 30 women are currently in jail in the capital, many simply because they have nowhere else to go, women’s rights activists say. “But I think even being in prison is safer than bearing the misery and punishments of violent men at home, at least in prison… one day you leave,” Zaynab said.