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Channel 4 News, January 28, 2010

Women’s rights under attack in Afghanistan

"I don’t trust the justice system in Afghanistan, I tried many times to get help from them but now I am in hiding from the authorities as well."

Afghan women burn themselves to escape suffering
"Last year [on the Islamic calendar] at this time we had 65 cases. This year we have 77 cases." "Out of those 77 cases only 25 survived."

Women were promised greater protection after the invasion of Afghanistan, but Nima Elbagir finds an increasing number have forced to self-inflict injuries to escape abuse.

When the Taliban were still in power the liberation of Afghanistan's women was a cause celebre in the west - a moral justification for the invasion.

Yet by the end of last year the United Nations was worriedly reporting that the number of violent incidents against women had risen to their highest since the fall of the Taliban.

Two democratic elections and billions of dollars later and in spite of the best declared intentions of the international community, women here still lack many basic rights.

Self-immolation

We travelled to some of the more secure provinces to the north of the main conflict zones in Helmand and Kandahar to see what life is like for Afghan women eight years on from that "liberation".

First off in the west of the country was the city of Herat. By Afghan standards it's remarkably affluent and secure. It boasts one of the best hospitals in the country and Afghanistan's only burns unit.

For the last few years the numbers coming into the burn unit's women's ward have been steadily rising. But these are not accidental injuries. Just in the week we arrived five women were brought here with self inflicted burns.

In the ward we meet 16-year-old Shireen. She set herself on fire to escape her violent husband - she says she was beaten everyday of her 12-month marriage. But police did nothing.

She told us: "The police came to the hospital in the morning and asked me why I did this. After I told them the reason it was only after that the police finally arrested him."

And Doctor Mohammed Jalali, the head of the burns unit, says that they are seeing more and more cases like Shireen's

"Last year [on the Islamic calendar] at this time we had 65 cases. This year we have 77 cases."

"Out of those 77 cases only 25 survived."

The doctor said that the practice - known as self-immolation - is increasingly popular with young women between the ages of the ages of 13 and 25.

Shireen's husband is still refusing to divorce her, but she said her injuries have brought her some relief - he can't bear to look at her any more, so he's allowing her to return to her parents' home.

With a judiciary and a police force that rarely act against domestic abuse, Afghan women, it seems, have found a way to try to force the hands of their husbands and the authorities.

Opium flowers

From Herat we travelled on to Nangarhar province along the Pakistani border on the opposite side of the country.

Nangarhar used to rank number three in the country for opium production but in the last few years it has become a poster province for eradication.

But many of the farmers we spoke to said that the government had forced them to stop growing opium but had done nothing to help them repay the debts to the drug lords they still owed crops too.

One farmer agreed to speak to us on camera but asked not to be named.

He said he had been forced to pay his debts to drug lords by marrying his five daughters to them.

A portion of the debt was discounted as a bride price for each daughter.

He told us: "There was no other way to pay the drug lords debts. Otherwise they threatened to cut my head off."

I asked him if he had complained to the police

"Where are the police?"

"The police asked for a bribe before they would help!"

"Then they told me I should pay with my daughters if I had nothing else!"

The farmer told us he still owes 12,000 dollars and he has no idea how to repay them.

"I can’t do anything now, I have run out of daughters and no one will pay for me, I'm old meat."

There are no official numbers but stories like this are increasingly common here.

The girls bartered for the drug debts even have a nickname; they are known as opium flowers.

'Legalising' marital rape

And it's not just in the provinces that daily life for women is so brutal - in the capital Kabul we drove to the mountainside suburbs where the country's Shia minority live.

Last spring President Karzai backed a law governing Shia family relations that effectively legalised marital rape and allowed for women to effectively be imprisoned in their homes.

There was an international outrage with the US and the UK calling the legislation abhorrent.

But the law was still passed in August ahead of the country's election and many conservative Shia clerics duly gave their support for Karzai's candidacy.

We went to meet with a Shia woman called Furshda to ask how life for her has changed since the law passed.

She agreed to speak but only the condition she was not recognisable on camera.

Furshda said she and her three-year-old son ran away from her abusive husband. She offered to show me the scars she is still covered with from all the times her husband beat her and forced himself on her.

Furshda told us: "The new Shia law has made my life even worse."

"I don’t trust the justice system in Afghanistan, I tried many times to get help from them but now I am in hiding from the authorities as well."

She says she wants a divorce but it's impossible as the new laws do not recognise marital rape and abuse. She has given up hope that anyone can help her now.

"I don’t think that there will ever be a time that the Afghan government will be on my side. I don't think they will ever protect me," she said.

It is not just the victims of abuse here that are in hiding - the majority of Afghan women's rights activists who we spoke to about the new Shia law would only do so on condition of anonymity.

One activist told us that "95 per cent of Afghan women are trapped in their homes" and the new law, which also prohibits women from leaving the house without a male escort, has "made that figure even higher for Shia women. It is destroying their chances of being able to escape abusive situations."

These days a walk through Kabul's more expensive quarters is likely to throw up the very modern sight of Afghan women in make-up and jeans, overlooked by shop windows boasting sequined evening gowns.

But in spite of Afghanistan now boasting by law one of the highest percentages of female parliamentarians in the world, the tide here seems to be turning.

So many of the Afghan women we spoke to said that the promises of greater freedoms and protection made after the invasion of Afghanistan have not been kept; both because of their own government and by the customs and mores that eight years on have still not been rooted out.

The space that opened up for women after the fall of the Taliban is consistently under attack.

And with the deteriorating security situation continuing to top the agenda; the question is how much are President Karzai's international backers prepared to overlook?

Category: Women, HR Violations, Poverty, Corruption - Views: 14978