What’s at Risk for Abused Afghan Women

Fazila’s husband was a member of the Taliban. When her father married her to this already “very old” man, she was only 15. Always violent, he left scars all over her body—on her finger, her shoulder and her forehead. “A stool, a knife,” she remembers. “Whatever came into his hand, he would use to beat me.”

Seven years ago, Fazila’s husband tried to kill her because she refused to allow her 14-year-old daughter to get married to one of her nephews. She took her children and ran away, making the trip from Parwan province to Kabul with the help of a stepson. She ended up staying at a protection center run by the NGO Women for Afghan Women that provides refuge for women fleeing violent husbands, rapists or forced marriage. WAW runs 12 such places around the country, and their locations remain confidential. 

“When I got to the shelter, I learned how it feels to be treated like a human,” she said. “People talk to me normally; they aren’t violent with me.” With the support of WAW, Fazila obtained the local equivalent of a divorce—“separation by absence.” Today, she rents her own house, lives alone with her children and works as a cook.

All of this is no small feat for any woman in Afghanistan. But Fazila’s isn’t WAW’s only “success story.”

Fazila, now 38, escaped a violent ex-husband with WAW’s help.

Lema was engaged at 10 to a 31-year-old man. Her father had “lost her” gambling, and “given” her to another family to pay his debts. Her husband turned out to be a drug addict so violent he even once made her sit on a burning oven. Although Lema’s husband committed suicide, his family blames her—and tried to find and kill her. Today, she lives with all her children and recently started working for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as a cook. 

Despite their impact, WAW’s work is constantly at risk. Deeba Ayubi, a case worker, was followed by one of her clients’ husband. Armed with a knife, he threatened to kidnap her, throw acid in her face, and rape her. The government does not assist female staff whose lives are in danger because of their work.

“It’s hard to change people’s negative opinions regarding our shelters,” Benafsha Efaf, WAW’s Kabul Province Manager, told Ms. “Often we are threatened. Some even call us ‘prostitution centers.’”

Benafsha Efaf is one of WAW’s leaders determined to sustain their work—despite threats at home and abroad.

In areas with strong Taliban presence, the job is even more arduous. Humaira Razadni, a caretaker for 13 years at one of WAW’s temporary shelters, has met enough women fleeing Taliban husbands to never trust the insurgents. “They cannot act as normal beings,” she said. “If they came back to power, the shelters would definitely be closed.” 

Toaraj Akbarza is the director of the NGO’s field office in Kunar—one of the most dangerous provinces of Afghanistan. The insurgents have made attempts on her life because they disapprove of her work. The police refuses to give her protection. All she can do is try her best not to be noticed outside her office.

Ghezal Nazari worries about the impact Afghanistan’s elections and U.S. withdrawal could have on WAW workers and clients.

WAW workers like Akbarza worry that she and her clients may face even more threats as U.S. troop withdrawal looms and the Taliban gain more and more ground. “I don’t trust the Taliban,” she said. “I am afraid because I don’t know what they will do.” 

Ghezal Nazari, Reporting and Communication officer at WAW, worries, too, about the aftermath of the recent presidential election in Afghanistan. Because voter turnout was so low, the results will most likely be disputed—which would lead to more insecurity and put WAW’s shelters at further risk. 

“If the security situation gets worse, we are definitely worried about the shelters, because we are the only ones working for women in Afghanistan,” she said. “We already have very little acceptance from society, so these things matter a lot.” 

About

Elise Blanchard is a French freelance journalist and photographer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She studied journalism at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University in New York. She is on Instagram @eliseblchrd.