- Afghanistan - feminism - Kabul - Taliban - violence against women
Four years after she fled the ordeal of her old life – the daily beatings, the incessant sexual and psychological abuse - 14-year-old Farida says her wrists still hurt a bit.
Placing her arms on the schoolbag cradled in her lap, she pushes up the long sleeves of her beige school uniform to gently brace her right wrist.
That’s the spot where she used to be bound - chained and left in a room with only scraps of bread thrown at her. “Like an animal,” says Farida, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Farida was barely 8 when her father gave her away in a “baad” to a 27-year-old man.
An illegal custom that’s still widely practiced in parts of Afghanistan, “baad” is a traditional means of settling disputes that involves a form of payment to a wronged party as compensation for a misdeed. Most often, the reparation involves giving a young girl to the victim’s family.
But these days, Farida does not want to think about all that. The pain in her wrist, she says, is hardly worth mentioning.
For Farida considers herself one of the lucky ones, and she says she does not want to be a whiner. She managed to escape, and these days she lives in a domestic violence shelter in the Afghan capital of Kabul – one of only a handful in a country where violence against women is rampant and still largely unreported.
More than eight years after the fall of the Taliban, the state of Afghan women’s rights indeed remains grim. But in pockets of the country, a nascent women’s movement is starting to take hold, aided by international women’s organizations and embraced by a small, but committed Afghan female force of women’s rights advocates, professionals, civil servants, politicians and ordinary citizens.
It’s the tiny steps in Afghanistan’s uphill fight for women’s rights that rarely make it into the international headlines emerging from this war-shattered country.
“In some parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban is active, there has not been that much of a change in the status of women,” says Nisha Varia, deputy director of the Women’s Rights Division at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “But in other parts, notably the west, the north, and in Kabul, there are improvements that can be sighted.”
‘No one knows this is a shelter’
Barely eight years ago, Kabul’s women’s prison was full of inmates jailed for “the crime” of fleeing abusive homes and marriages. Today, the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), as well as local police stations, can refer domestic violence cases to a handful of shelters across the country.
The facilities are far from adequate, though, and they only exist outside the southeastern areas that have been hit by the Taliban insurgency.
Even in Kabul, the business of running a shelter is a highly sensitive issue.
The shelter where Farida lives - which is run by the NGO, Women for Afghan Women (WAW) - is lodged in a nondescript house hiding behind high walls in a residential neighborhood of Kabul. It is one of three shelters the NGO runs – the others are in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and in the eastern Kapisa province.
Outside the gates of the Kabul shelter, little boys stop playing on the street to watch the unmarked WAW van ferrying some of the girls to school. Even the curiosity of street children is disconcerting in a country where security and discretion are prime concerns for aid organizations working on women’s issues.
“The location of our shelter is secure, secret and confidential,” says Huma Safi, WAW program director. “No one knows it’s a shelter.”