The Work Of The Brave


I came to Herat to visit the only women’s shelter in Western Afghanistan.

Hidden away in an anonymous building a few blocks from the centre of town, the shelter is crammed with women and children who have fled to escape abusive husbands or family members. The afternoon I visit the shelter it is nearly full, with around 40 women and their children making use of the temporary accommodation. The exact location of the shelter is a well kept secret; many of the women are scared their husbands will track them down and harm them or their children.

Many of the women are shy and obviously traumatised. They sit cross-legged on the frayed carpet, drinking tea and making quiet conversation. Scores of babies and kids climb over them, clamoring for attention. Everybody here is under the care of Suraya Pakzad, a 37-year-old mother of six who heads the locally run NGO "Voice of Women". She wanders around the crowded room, offering a hug here, squeezing a hand there. "Most of these women are here because of domestic violence," she explains sadly.

A young teenage mother sits on one of the shelter’s makeshift beds, rocking back and forth with her small sickly baby. "She says she is 16 but I think she is younger," Suraya tells me. The young mother begins to talk about the beatings she received from her husband and why she fled to the shelter. "He punched me. Last time he attacked me with a knife. Twice," the girl informs us solemnly, motioning toward scars on her legs.

I’m introduced to 12 year-old Sara. Looking younger than her age, with wide brown eyes, Sara just narrowly escaped being traded for a house. "After we lost our father we went to live at our uncle’s house. But he was giving us a hard time and every day it got worse," she says in a small voice. "He started beating me and pushing my mum to sell me. My cousin knew. He told my older brother ‘Get your mum and sister away. He wants to sell your sister.’ "

Sara’s mother explains that as soon as she learnt about her brother-in-law’s plans for Sara, she fled to the shelter with her daughter and her two small sons. "He really wanted to swap my daughter for the house," she says. "I risked my life to save her. If I go back there they’ll kill me on sight! And then they will sell her!"

This is just one of the many stories of forced child marriage that Suraya has seen at the shelter. "Unfortunately, forced and child marriage have not really reduced since 2001," she laments. "It’s still a common practice. Not just in rural areas. Even in the centre of the cities "

Under Afghanistan’s new constitution, both child and forced marriages are illegal, but there is little effort by authorities to implement the law. "We have beautiful paper in the constitution. We have beautiful laws, but the implementation of the law is in the hands of the warlords, in the hands of the commanders, in the hands if the religious leaders," Suraya says, infuriated.

On the wall of Suraya’s office is a framed photo of her posing with Condoleezza Rice at the White House, and another of her being given an award by President Hamid Karzai. Earlier this year, TIME magazine even named her one of their "100 Most Influential People" of 2009. But despite all the recognition and accolades, she struggles to source adequate funding.

"We need at least one shelter in each province of Afghanistan," Suraya explains. "Women are suffering from domestic violence in all provinces of Afghanistan. But we don’t have enough shelters. For five provinces we only have one shelter in Herat, which is not enough." Suraya says that despite the billions of dollars in aid donated by foreign governments to Afghanistan, very little actually trickles down to projects like hers. "[Foreign donors] don’t trust Afghan people," she tells me, "They bring NGOs from their own countries and then they give them the funds."

Despite numerous death threats from abusive husbands and local warlords, there are no bodyguards to protect Suraya as she goes about her work. "People who are against women’s rights are not happy with what I do. The warlords, the commanders and the people who have guns and are powerful don’t like our services," Suraya explains.

The threats are very real. In recent months, the Taliban have taken to targeting and assassinating women’s rights activists across the country.

In April this year, Sitara Achakzai was shot dead outside her home in Kandahar. The 52-year-old member of the provisional council was renowned for her advocacy work and had received numerous death threats. Sitara’s assassination followed the murder of Kandahar’s first female police superintendent, Malalai Kakar, who was killed last November. The 37-year-old mother of six had been in charge of the Crimes Against Women office at Kandahar’s main police station.

In order to try and make sure her movements can’t be easily followed, Suraya takes a different route to work everyday and travels in different cars whenever she can. She has asked the local authorities for help with security, but they say they can’t spare any personnel.

The next day, Suraya takes me to Herat’s juvenile detention centre and convinces the guards to let me accompany her on one of her regular visits.

Inside, there are around 30 girls aged from 12 to 17 sitting around a large room sewing garments for the prison to sell. Like the women I met in Kabul, these girls have all been incarcerated because they are thought to have committed adultery or because they have run away from home (which, as I wrote last week, is a crime for women in Afghanistan).

Often, however, these charges hide terrible truths.

"Some of them are here because they are raped. Unfortunately they are here because the rape is considered as adultery," Suraya explains to me. Under current Afghan law, in order for women to prove they have been raped, they have to provide at least three witnesses to the authorities. Otherwise, they can end up being charged with adultery. This is exactly what has happened to at least 15 of the young girls being held here.

Twelve-year-old Nadia sits in the corner, stooped over her sewing machine, sewing pillow after pillow. She’s a tiny timid girl; dressed in purple and pink, with thin, thin arms. When she speaks it’s hard to hear her, she spends the whole time looking down into her lap fiddling with her hands. "Why were you brought here?" Suraya inquires. "Because the man raped me. That’s why I was brought here," Nadia mumbles. She tells us that a man who lived nearby kidnapped her eight months ago. Two days later, police found her in the man’s home. When she told them he had forced her to have sex, they put her in the juvenile detention centre and charged her with adultery.

Nadia’s family thinks it is very shameful that she is no longer a virgin and they are worried this will affect her marriage chances. So while she has been in prison, Nadia’s father has found a fiancé for her to marry as soon as she gets out. "He’s too old for me and I don’t want him," she tells us sadly, "He’s 30."

Working away at the machine opposite is Farzana, who is also 12 and facing charges of adultery.

She was arrested after her neighbour took her inside his bakery shop and forced himself upon her. When the incident was reported to local police, they didn’t take her claims of rape seriously, and instead issued adultery charges. "They took me for a medical check-up," she explains, "but they didn’t even touch me between the legs."

Farzana’s mother is also concerned about the shame of her daughter losing her virginity. She’s worried her new husband won’t take Farzana back into the family and that she will have to ask the local Mullah to find a husband for the 12-year-old. "I have to get married because I have no other option," Farzana explains. "If my stepfather doesn’t take me back, then my mother doesn’t have the power to keep me at home. I have no option, I will have to get married."

The prison guards are getting nervous and they ask Suraya and I to leave. As we walk out, we pass Nadia who has just had a meeting with the prosecutor to talk about her "charges". She is standing in the doorway crying softly. I go to give her a hug. She’s embarrassed and doesn’t want any attention. I ask Suraya to tell her that she shouldn’t be ashamed, that she hasn’t done anything wrong. It’s a pathetic attempt to insert some degree of right into a situation that is so utterly unjust and over which none of us have any control. Not Suraya, not me, and certainly not Nadia. Here there are no avenues to help a young girl in her situation — here the system is set up against her.

Why has Western intervention failed so drastically to improve the condition of women and girls like Nadia? And how much responsibility do nations with troops serving in Afghanistan hold when it comes to this issue?

Suraya Pakzad accuses Western countries of turning a blind eye to women’s rights over the last eight years. "They don’t take women’s issues seriously," she reflects sadly. "They think security is the priority and if they pay attention to that everything will be okay. They forget we are 50 per cent of the population of Afghanistan."

There can be no doubt that we have seriously failed young girls like Nadia over the last eight years. Will this continue to happen on our watch?

Names have been changed to protect identities.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.