12.01.09

What the Surge Means for Women

In Afghanistan, where domestic violence is epidemic, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon speaks to young mothers who’ve survived abuse and want women’s rights to top the military’s agenda.

Sitting atop a burgundy pillow with her back pressed up against the bare white wall of the shelter she now calls home, Naseema pushes her polka-dot headscarf away from her eyes and begins to tell her story.

She was around 16 years old when her father, who suffered from mental illness, married her off without her consent, for a sum she does not know, to a man eight years her senior. Naseema’s mother had left her children behind years earlier when she married another man, so there was no one to intervene on Naseema’s behalf.

“I will kill myself before I go back to my husband,” says Shukria, just 20 years old.

“From the start, my life was not good,” Naseema says. “My husband beat me and my children; he was a criminal.”

Dana Goldstein: Why Feminists Love the Surge Eventually, Naseema’s husband went to jail on charges of murdering a woman in her community. But his detention brought Naseema no safety. Neither her in-laws nor her siblings were willing to protect Naseema and her four children, out of fear of retribution from her husband, who was furious at his wife’s attempts to escape his abuse and threatened to kill anyone who took her in. Fearing for her life, Naseema sought a divorce, but court officials told her it was impossible to resolve her case until her husband’s murder charges were settled. His prison escape earlier this year has now made that all but impossible.

Now the young mother lives in fear for her own life—and that of her children. “I have no hope,” Naseema says, her dark eyes flooding over with tears as she wraps her arms around her 2-year-old son’s waist. “Everyone is afraid because of my husband. I have no one to help me.”

In Afghanistan, where violence against women is both widespread and rarely reported, Naseema’s story is all but routine. A recent U.N. report said the country suffers from “a deeply entrenched culture of impunity” in which perpetrators of violence seldom face punishment and victims “risk further violence in the course of seeking justice.”

But some women’s rights groups, including Women for Afghan Women, the organization that oversees the shelter where Naseema lives, greeted President Obama’s speech Tuesday night—and his vow to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan—with a modicum of hope, and a call for a long-term American commitment to the country.

“Without security, the Taliban will engulf the country and return women to the hell of rape, domestic captivity, denial of education and health care—to the erasure of their very humanity,” the group’s leaders said in a statement.

In Kabul alone, Women for Afghan Women receives 45 to 55 new cases of women escaping from domestic violence each month. Most are settled within four to six weeks, as women seldom live alone in this family-centered society and are most often taken in by relatives or returned to their husbands following the organization’s mediation. The toughest cases, like Naseema’s, last far longer, however, with some clients staying at the shelter for years.

To save Naseema, Manizha Naderi, who oversees the shelter, is searching for a country to take in the young woman and her children, the oldest of whom are excelling in school classes offered by the shelter. Regular school is out of the question because the threat of kidnapping is too great. So far, Naderi has had no luck, but she presses forward, certain Naseema will be killed by her husband if her own efforts fail.

Wahida is another one of the shelter’s longer-term residents. Now barely 35 but with the face of a far older woman, she says she was 13 when her family sold her into marriage to a man who was 45. From the first year of her marriage, she remembers being beaten regularly and brutally by both her husband and her in-laws, for offenses as benign as not knowing how to do the domestic chores they expected her to handle. Just a year after her wedding, Wahida’s husband sold their firstborn son to a family in Pakistan. He was 2 months old.

After 16 years of marriage, Wahida’s husband charged her with infidelity in a court case he was never able to prove. She was nonetheless sentenced to more than a decade in prison. Four of her children went with her to Pul-e-Charkhi, Kabul’s most notorious jail. Wahida says she looked for a safe place to send her three boys and one girl, but there was none; her own family would not take the children in. So she raised all four behind bars for four years, until she was granted a pardon with the help of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which then referred her to the Women for Afghan Women shelter.

Today, Wahida would have had another option, a fact she says will make an enormous difference for mothers like her, sentenced to jail for domestic crimes such as infidelity, running away from home, and kidnapping, many of which are never proved by their accusers in a court of law. In November, Women for Afghan Women opened the first home for the children of women in prison, a center designed to give boys and girls age 5 and up a sense of normalcy and a solid education while their mothers serve out prison terms. Nearly 30 boys and girls now live in the freshly painted two-story Kabul home, outfitted with square wooden desks and a slew of new Dell computers.

There is also a bright spot on the political landscape. The new Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women, already signed by President Hamid Karzai and now under review in the Afghan parliament, aims to prevent and punish forced marriage, childhood marriage, forced prostitution, and physical violence against women. It outlaws baad, the process of offering a female in marriage as a blood price to settle a murder or other serious dispute between families. And for the first time, the law defines rape as a crime in the country’s penal code. Violators face penalties including jail time and fines.

Those who have fought for years for the law’s passage say that while they would like to see even stronger language and stiffer penalties for offenders, the legislation has succeeded in opening the issue of violence against women up for discussion.

“It is a challenge for us, but we have to start from somewhere,” says Shukria Barakzai, a female member of parliament who supports the measure. “This is the beginning.”

Wenny Kusuma, who heads the United Nations Development Fund for Women in Afghanistan, calls violence against women the most urgent and immediate issue facing the nation’s females—and one that has yet to be taken seriously by the Afghan government or its international backers. “Until politicians and the international community stop offering lip service to the rights of women and begin backing their words with some seriousness, [the violence] will continue to get worse,” Kusuma says.

Women’s advocates hope that with the new law and support from Afghan leadership, they will be able to bring more resources to bear on behalf of domestic violence victims like Shukria, a soft-spoken young woman with high cheekbones and an ice-melting smile. She says she is 20, but she looks even younger. At 13, Shukria’s family forced her to leave school and marry an older cousin, who began abusing her a day into their marriage. She was tortured by electrocution and endured hours of beatings with metal sticks at the hands of her husband, who later tried to force her into prostitution and beat her when she refused to go along with his plan. Her own pleas for permission to work outside the home—to support her children and her husband’s gambling and drinking habits—went unheeded. Instead, she spent years attempting to escape the marriage, only to be returned to her husband each time.

Finally, when even her brothers-in-law said they could no longer help her fend off her husband’s attacks, she at last fled for good, seeking help from the country’s Human Rights Commission. The commission referred Shukria and her two small children to the shelter where she now is finding the first bit of peace she has had in years, and pursuing a divorce. It is impossible to know how long the process will take, particularly if her husband refuses her request.

While she waits for her case to be settled, Shukria sits with her roommates at the shelter and thinks about her future.

“I will kill myself before I go back to my husband,” she says in a tone that leaves little room to doubt her. Then her face softens.

“My hope is for my children. I want them to have a good life.”

Get Involved: Women for Afghan Women has served over 900 female survivors of human rights violations at its Family Guidance Center in Kabul. Last month the group opened a Children's Support Center to house 40 kids who would otherwise live in prison with their mothers.

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon covered presidential politics as a producer at ABC News in Washington. Since 2005, she has been reporting on women entrepreneurs starting businesses in post-conflict economies such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda. She is working on a book scheduled for 2010 publication by HarperCollins about a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business supported her family and community during the Taliban years.