The Killid Group, September 10, 2013

Dreams of a new life not for abused women

She believes that had there been no shelters for women in Afghanistan many would have turned to sex work for survival

By Wahidullah

Farzana has been living with her son in a refuge for women in Sangcharak district, Sar-e-Pol province, ever since her release from jail. Her husband was killed four years after her marriage, and she spent eight years in jail for the crime.

Her parents have not seen her since the night of her wedding. They believe she has sullied the family honour but Farzana insists she did not kill her husband.

Farzana's story is not unusual. She says she was married to her aunt's stepson because her father was poor. She was abused and taunted. "We did not ask for you," her husband's family would say. "Your father donated you to us."

One day her aunt-turned-mother-in-law went to the hospital to meet her nephew without telling the men in the family. When Farzana's husband got to know he told his father who beat his wife so severely that she miscarried. Farzana says her mother-in-law plotted with one of her nephew's to kill Farzana's husband, and implicated her in the crime. In the end both women were arrested, and sent to jail.

Farzana who has a son would like a chance to start a new life but it may be an impossible dream. The shelter in Sangcharak is her only home for now. "My parents say they don't have a daughter called Farzana. My brother has threatened to find and kill me …"

Women's shelters are not acceptable in this patriarchal society where the only place for a woman is in her husband's home even if she's being beaten to death.

In 2011, Women for Afghan Women, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) opened the Sangcharak safe house.

Atefa Hazbar, Balkh provincial director of the NGO, says in a majority of cases they have succeeded in getting the women's family or husband to take her back. In some cases the women have remarried. Only seven of the 59 women released into their custody from prison were not rehabilitated.

An inmate of Sherberghan women's prison, which was built with Nato funds and houses women serving jail terms for adultery
An inmate of Sherberghan women's prison, which was built with Nato funds and houses women serving jail terms for adultery. (Photo: Pia Heikkila/Guardian)

Defenceless victim

Killid interviewed Sadia, 13, in the tiny reception room of the Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan shelter in Mazar. She sounds desperate. "My husband was beating me so much I had to escape."

A resident of Sheberghan, capital of Jawzjan province, her father died three years ago. A year later her mother wanted to marry again but since the man did not want to be saddled with the responsibility of her children Sadia was married to her aunt's son, 11 years her senior. Sadia thought she would be safe in a relative's family but her husband beat her daily on the instigation of her aunt-turned-mother-in-law and sister-in-law. "They were constantly carrying tales about me to my husband. That I was not working even though I was working from morning to night. I was not allowed to leave the house."

After two years of torture she fled with the help of a relative whose name she did not want to reveal. He brought her to the safe house in Mazar.

Sadia would like a divorce but she is scared for her life. "If I go home they will kill me," she says. "I am here (in the safe house) but my husband's family are saying I am in an illicit relationship with someone and have gone to Mazar. What they want to do is make trouble for my mother. Already my stepfather is behaving badly with her."

Sadia says she has nowhere else to go to. "My stepfather will not have me. Only my uncle has said he will take me to his house," she says.

According to her lawyer, Elham, in her case the court will grant her a divorce after serving her husband with three summonses, and allow her to go with her uncle. "Sadia is underage, and her husband does not want to come to court," he explains. Her uncle may want to arrange her marriage, but Sadia says, "I never want to marry again."

Bleak future

AIHRC's Women's Affairs officer for the north Fawzia Nawabi says "friends" helped to arrange the marriages of six women abandoned by their families. "But still there are women for whom neither a husband can be found nor their families are ready to accept them," she adds.

She believes that had there been no shelters for women in Afghanistan many would have turned to sex work for survival. Sadly, in many instances where families have taken back their daughters following mediation by women's groups "either they have been murdered or their condition so tough that they commit suicide. For instance a woman was killed by her husband after two months of her release," Nawabi adds.

Locked away

As families crowd the prison yard in the hope of meeting their loved prisons, 22-year-old Bahar knows no one will come to see her except her mother who makes secret visits. Bahar is in jail for the murder of her husband. But she continues to insist that no wife can kill her husband. She says neighbours killed her husband but her mother-in-law swore she was the murderer. "I don't have any hope for my future," Bahar says.

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