Gains Hard Won Seem Precarious:
Jill Abramson, New York Times, September 8, 2011
The sound of their voices was unforgettable — the soft, high voices of girls — and yet some were surrounded by children of their own, and the stories of their journeys to this secret place were chilling.
We were at a women’s shelter in Kabul, about 30 women and two Western journalists. As they told of being forced to marry men much older, of being beaten and raped, then finally, of their escape, some wiped back tears. They were asked their ages, and the most common replies were “15” or “16.”
A major success of the last decade has been the gains in girls’ education and more people around the world embracing the cause of Afghan women generally. Around 5,000 Afghan girls were enrolled in school in 2001. Now there are 2.4 million. Women for Afghan Women, which operates the Kabul shelter and others in Afghanistan, is one of many nonprofits that have attracted considerable financial support from the West. Billions of dollars have been donated to rebuild the education system. But even in recent years, schoolgirls have been targeted by antigovernment forces and extremists, prompting teachers to quit and parents to keep their children out of the classroom.
There is worry that the West is losing interest in the plight of Afghan women, as the focus shifts to troop drawdowns. “I am very concerned that our centers will be closed if the U.S. leaves,” said Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women.
The Kabul shelter where we met once housed Bibi Aisha, the young woman whose nose had been cut off and who appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year under the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” On this visit, a young woman lifted her scarf to show a bald spot where she said her mother-in-law had repeatedly beaten her with a wooden mallet. Another told of running away from a much older brother-in-law who insisted she marry him when she turned 14. “He bothered me for more than four months,” she said in a quivering voice. Every woman who runs away in Afghanistan risks arrest for adultery and harsh penalties, even death.
Ms. Naderi, herself six months pregnant, hoped to open two more shelters this year. A 10th-anniversary celebration of her organization in New York might also attract fresh financing. But generating fresh passion for her cause has become harder. Meanwhile, the women in her shelter continue to dream the dreams that are common to girls around the world. When asked what they hoped to become after they left the shelter, “teacher” and “doctor” were among the more popular answers.
In our seven (thus far) women's shelters--in Kabul, Kapisa, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Faryab, Badakhshan and Saripul--we harbor women in danger of being murdered for shaming the family, women and girls who have been sold or "paid" to other families as restitution for crimes, forced into marriage, forbidden to marry someone they love. You name the violation, we have examples of it. And women's lives are in danger because of the extreme stigma associated with it.
Our shelter services have come a long way in a short time. Our first shelter was opened in 2007: a tiny building, a builder's afterthought stuck onto the back of our first Family Guidance Center. We thought we could refer women to other shelters if ours was full up, but the two in Kabul were crammed full. We had two floors with about 6 mattress pads on each floor. We soon learned that having a shelter in a publicly known location wasn't safe, so we found a separate building across town. That was the start, in the summer of 2007.
Women in our shelters take literacy, life skills and even some vocational classes. They confer with their counselors and/or lawyers, meet for mediation and counseling with their families, attend sessions with prosecutors (accompanied by their lawyer) and attend their court cases. Their children enter our kindergartens, learn to read and write, do art, sing songs, play games. For many of our clients, this is the first time they have been able to rest and feel somewhat human.
Women stay from a few weeks to 2 years. They are depressed, relieved to be out of abusive family situations, worried about their futures. They have reason to be worried.
Our goal is to have a Family Guidance Center and Shelter (two separate facilities) in every province in Afghanistan, and we are well on our way. All this has taken place in a mere 4 1/2 years. But with the foreign troop withdrawal and the increasing Taliban violence, we are worried about the safety and survival of the facilities we operate, and it remains to be seen whether circumstances will allow us to keep expanding our critical programs.