Afghan women can be married at 16, but many are forced into arranged marriages much earlier — and police in rural areas often return abused women to their husbands. Luckily, a handful of shelters offer refuge to some women.
David Zucchino of the LA Times writes,
Women have virtually no options in Afghan tribal culture. It would be scandalous for a woman to live alone or pursue a job on her own. They are dependent on men for food, clothing, shelter and status — and often must give up their children when seeking divorce. Girls have to be at least 16 to get married, but the law is widely ignored.
Women for Afghan Women, a shelter in Kabul and one of six in the country, provides safe harbor and help with divorce or housing to women and girls fleeing abuse or forced marriage. Seventeen-year-old Shabana sought refuge there after a man kidnapped her, forced her to marry him, and kept her prisoner in his home. She says, "He knew I had no one to protect me, and he took advantage." The shelter's youngest occupant ever was a five-year-old rape victim. Many occupants fear they would be killed if they ever went back to their husbands or families, and shelter employees have received threats and even beatings. But board member Esther Hyneman (pictured, right) says, "We're making progress every day. You can't change hundreds of years of cultural tradition overnight."
Yet another problem for Afghan women is maternal mortality — one in eight Afghan women die in childbirth, the second highest rate in the world. Rita Henley Jensen reports that the Congressional Women's Caucus is holding a briefing on the issue today, hopefully chipping away at long-standing international indifference to the problem. The UN, too, has issued a report on women in Afghanistan, highlighting the violence they face. Jensen says the report "described the nation as one where rape is widespread and victims are more likely than perpetrators to receive punishment."
Shelters like Women for Afghan Women may help individual victims, but Jensen argues that Afghanistan needs policy changes too — including an examination of whether the presence of US peacekeeping troops "enhances or threatens the security of women in war-torn Afghanistan." "How can U.S. women help in all of this?" she writes. "It's not an easy question, but it's the right one to keep asking until the best answer finds its way to a solid, humanitarian, political consensus about the troop buildup and so much more."
Image via LA Times.