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Bartered for ‘justice’, abused women seek shelters (Part II)

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-05-20

Fleeing domestic violence and the tyranny of ancient customs, Afghan women are increasingly seeking help. In some areas, protection is available in women’s shelters. But it’s not nearly enough in a country where violence against women is rampant.

Click here for Part I: Escaping abuse for a Kabul shelter


Baad: When girls pay for men’s sins


The shelter’s strict security and the secrecy surrounding its location should reassure Farida. For the one thing she most fears is that her father, a former Afghan police officer, could find her.


“My father is a very intelligent man, this is why I’m very scared that he will find me,” she says, pulling the white headscarf of her school uniform lower on her forehead.


It was her father who put Farida in a situation that exposed her to physical and sexual abuse.


Estranged from her mother, her father had an affair with a woman in the southern province of Gazni. As reparation for defiling the woman’s – and her family’s - honour, he simply handed his young daughter to the girl's 27-year-old brother in a baad.


Under the principles of Pashtunwali, an ancient, unwritten tribal code that regulates the lives of the majority Pashtun ethnic group, women are essentially viewed as reliable currency for reparation for a broad array of crimes or grievances.


While the primary purpose of such customary practices is to preserve the social order, little thought is paid to the women and girls bartered for justice.


“He beat me so much,” says Farida, referring to the man to whom she was handed over. “When I cried and said, ‘Why are you doing this to me? What have I done to you?’ he just said, ‘I want revenge for what your father did to my sister.’”


Baad is illegal under Afghan law, and perpetrators can technically get up to two years in jail for the offence. But in reality, baad is widespread across Afghanistan, and prosecutions are rare since females are reluctant to initiate proceedings against family members.


Working with, not against, the family


While it is difficult enough to get women to seek justice, Safi maintains the biggest obstacle is that most Afghan women “just don’t know their rights.”


In WAW’s shelters in Kabul, Kapisa and Mazar-e-Sharif, residents have access to legal services if they need to pursue divorces or file criminal proceedings.


But another hurdle for shelter staffers is securing the long-term future of shelter inmates and former inmates.


In Afghanistan, it is virtually impossible for women to live alone, without the protection of the family and especially of male relatives. Given the importance of the family, Afghan women’s advocates say the emphasis in domestic violence cases is on trying to solve the situation within the family through counseling and outreach services.


Safi says the shelter runs an extensive follow-up system that monitors the cases of women who have left to rejoin their families or start new ones.


In WAW’s case, the organization has taken the unusual step of helping some clients find new husbands. Prospective grooms are carefully selected and approved by the shelter’s staff, and tend to be men who cannot afford the customary bride price, making them more accommodating when seeking a wife.


It’s not an orthodox solution, but in Afghanistan, women’s advocates must work with what they have. “If you don’t have a family in Afghanistan, it is very, very difficult for women to survive,” says Safi. “In the West, you can have single, unaccompanied women, but here, we can’t do that. We have to work with the families. There is still so much that needs to be done for Afghan women’s rights. We can’t give up the fight.”

Date created : 2009-05-15