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Afghanistan

Afghan Women's Shelters Face Uncertain Future

Eighteen-year-old Mumtaz (right) with Sahar Gul (center) and Gulsika, all of whom garnered media attention for their stories of abuse
Eighteen-year-old Mumtaz (right) with Sahar Gul (center) and Gulsika, all of whom garnered media attention for their stories of abuse

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By Frud Bezhan
KABUL -- Mumtaz, her disfigured face a collage of bulging red scars, fidgets nervously with a pen as she attempts to write her name for the first time.

The 18-year-old, standing among a handful of women in a makeshift classroom, is attending her daily lessons at a women's shelter in Kabul. The shelter is one of more than a dozen around Afghanistan that provide refuge for abused Afghan women who have fled their homes.

Mumtaz's face lights up as she writes her name correctly on a chalkboard. But her smile quickly vanishes when asked about the events that led her to seek protection at the shelter, run by the Afghan nongovernmental organization Women4AfghanWomen, five months ago.

The shelter currently houses around 20 women, some with young children. Many, unable to return to their homes and families for fear of being killed, have been there for years because they have nowhere else to go.

Mumtaz says she was victimized by a scorned man who decided that if he could not marry her, he would make sure nobody else would want to. The middle-aged man, who reputedly had links to a local militia, had asked for her hand in marriage, but her father refused the request.

In response, Mumtaz says, the man, accompanied by six others, broke into her home in northern Kunduz Province, beat her father, and sprayed skin-burning acid over her mother and three sisters. Mumtaz says her one-time suitor pulled her hair back and emptied a bucket of acid over head and body before fleeing.

"They took me to a hospital in Kunduz, where I stayed for about 10 days. They wouldn't even look at me there," she says. "The women's group brought me to Kabul. I had one operation but then they discharged me, saying I wouldn't get better and would die. Finally, they sent me to India."

Indebted To The Shelter

Against overwhelming odds, Mumtaz survived after receiving several life-saving medical procedures in New Delhi. Mumtaz's family members, too, survived, although their safety remains precarious as many of the men accused of involvement in the attack are still at large.

After months of rehabilitation at the shelter in Kabul, Mumtaz is in stable condition and is able to speak, move, and eat freely. Doctors are still closely monitoring her fragile psychological condition as Mumtaz battles trauma and depression.

"The shelter has helped me a lot," says Mumtaz. "If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died.""The shelter has helped me a lot," says Mumtaz. "If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died."
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"The shelter has helped me a lot," says Mumtaz. "If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died."
"The shelter has helped me a lot," says Mumtaz. "If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died."
Mumtaz says she is indebted to the shelter, which helped pay her expensive medical and travel expenses. She hails the efforts of women's shelters, many of them run by Afghan NGOs and funded by a mix of private donors, international organizations, and foreign governments.

Many, she says, continue to work despite routine death threats and assassination attempts by the Taliban, which often claims the shelters are brothels and a haven for drug use.

"The shelter has helped me a lot. If they hadn't helped me, I probably would have died," Mumtaz says. "I'm very happy here. They help me in every aspect, including food, clothes, and ensuring I have my own room. They do everything for us."

Fear Of Progress Undone

To many, Mumtaz's shocking ordeal highlights the fragile state of women's rights in Afghanistan, where domestic abuse is routine, forced marriages are the norm, and female suicide rates remain among the highest in the world despite gains made since the fall of the Talban in late 2001.

Now, as the United States and its NATO allies prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, fears are rising that what little progress women have made could be undone if the Taliban reenters the political scene.

Afghan women march in Kabul on July 11 to protest the public execution of a young woman for alleged adultery.
Afghan women march in Kabul on July 11 to protest the public execution of a young woman for alleged adultery.
The country's independently run and funded women's shelters, a prime symbol of that progress, are already bearing the brunt of growing conservatism within the government. In February 2011, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under pressure from powerful social and religious circles, attempted to bring the shelters under government control.

The draft law, which was abandoned following a flurry of Western media attention, would have required women to obtain government approval and even virginity tests before they would be granted access to shelters.

'We Don't Trust Our Own People'

Muzhda Saleh, who has worked as a volunteer for the Women4AfghanWomen shelter in Kabul for the past two years, says Afghan women are already struggling to shed their second-class status in one of the world's most religious and conservative countries.

"In the provinces [outside the major cities], very few people have accepted that their girls should study, go to school, and eventually work," Saleh says. "Many women will lose the gains that they have made in the last 10 years. This is not easy to say, but we women don't trust our own people. Perhaps the rights that women have now will be taken away from them. The only environment in which these rights can be saved is when international forces are here."

Mumtaz, too, is pessimistic about the future. Despite repeated pledges from the international community that Afghan women will not be abandoned, she predicts the West will lose interest and the Western-backed Afghan government will sell out women as it negotiates a peace settlement with insurgents.

Whatever unfolds in the next few years, Mumtaz, who insists she can never go back to her village for fear of her life, maintains she will embark on a new chapter. Mumtaz hopes to finish school and eventually give back to the cause that she says saved her life.

"I don't know what will happen to me in the future. I would like to study and work in this office for women. They always come to the aid of desperate women," she says.

"Whenever I reflect on my own experiences, I think if they weren't there then I would have died. I had no life and my family didn't have the means to help me and take me to the hospital. Every girl and woman in Afghanistan is living under hardship."

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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Comments
     
by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
July 23, 2012 13:41
Afghani men will have to loose their superiorty complex before women there will ever have a good life.
In Response

by: Anonymous
July 23, 2012 18:58
Well, after the Russian and the American occupation they learned from their masters not that good but still decent:

"Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted"
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/health/nearly-1-in-5-women-in-us-survey-report-sexual-assault.html

"Survey: 30 percent of women abused in relationships"
http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500202_162-20059316.html
Do I need to say more?

In Response

by: george from: USA
July 24, 2012 00:37
And your point? Are you saying that it is ok for women to be treated that way? Or that the strictures placed on the women of Afghanistan, did not start till Russia invaded, or the US went after the Taliban?
Or are you just writing out of your butt, to write some thing?
In Response

by: American
July 24, 2012 22:39
I got his point from the last weblink:
"The National Domestic Violence Hotline has more than 80,000 calls last year (that) went unanswered because of lack of funding."
We spend billions of dollars around the world, worry about other peoples, and cannot help our own women. Troops, out, now.

by: George from: USA
July 24, 2012 00:47
What I want to know is why the Karzi goverment, has not found the criminal, tried and hung him.
If that was my familly their would be many dead bodys till his fellow criminals gave him up.
What angers me is we give billions to that jerk and his regime.
In Response

by: Gary from: USA
July 24, 2012 19:02
George, these men will never be brought to justice because THEY are the justice of the system. This is a Muslim Culture (notice I didnt say Government though it would be the same). Where the Man is KING and the woman is little more than a Dog. IF these women are not removed from this Religious Setting these crimes will continue and worse! When these Relief Organizations run out of funds, are forced out by threats or workers are killed and their doors are closed these women will be killed if they are not abducted and killed while these organizations set by helpless. Remember these are the same cultures that have HONOR KILLINGS! Women are Betrothed at a very young age and are forced to marry very old men this is the culture you are saying should hang these men, the women will be hung or beheaded and this is a fact! This type behaviour has gone on for oh say 1200 to 1300 years since the beginning, and beyond before their current belief system. One cannot change what has occured for thousands of years, we are just now aware of it but dont dare print it as clearly as I have here for fear of retaliation. It is totally wrong what has happened but these women need to insist on being removed from this SLAVERY; the first step is to remove THE HEAD COVERING and NEVER wear it again; break the CONTROL and walk totally away from it! Get out of the country and start over and count themselves fortunate to be able to do so if it is at all possible.
In Response

by: American
July 24, 2012 22:44



She said, "The National Domestic Violence Hotline has more than 80,000 calls last year (that) went unanswered because of lack of funding. So we are hoping that everyone will text 'tell now' to 85944 and that will give a $10 donation to the hotline. And for every donation, Avon Foundation is going to match it up to $200,000."
http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500202_162-20059316.html
Guys did you make a call already? The number is 85944. US women need help too, you know. Why do are we in this place anyway?

by: Crowsnest from: Canada
July 24, 2012 21:46
Rarely does one see a male commenting on a forum regarding mens physical and/or emotional abuse of females. So... thank you.

by: George W Karzai from: usa
July 25, 2012 03:00
Arm them! This is Afghanistan we're talking about. Women who had their faces burned with acid by men should become radical amazon warriors.

by: Shosho from: Los Angeles
July 26, 2012 09:48
I've been here for 3 years working and my heart hurts for the struggling families and harsh lifestyle these Afghan's survive in. Then there's the mistreatment of the Afghanistan women at the hands of men who phrase Ala when an execution of a young girl is carried out under the accusation of adulterous or for merely running away from an abusive husband or his family. It angers me and upsets me greatly. The Afghan government considers the plight of Afghan women a low priority and none, if any, funding is budgeted for the support groups attempting to help them. I read where an Afghanistan father of four is indebted to the owner of a brick factory for a loan of $900.00 to place his sick wife in a hospital in Pakistan. He earns $6.00 dollar a day but all that goes to the owner to repay the $900.00 dollar debt. He basically works for free and forced to beg after work for money to feed his family. He children and sick wife now help him work to meet his brick manufacturing quota. I wish I could help this man. I wish I could do something for him and his family. I wish the government here would do something for it's people and bring justice to those who disfigure, kill and mistreat the Afghan women.

by: Snobo
August 09, 2012 21:13
War only ever makes things worse for women. If the US had really cared about helping Afghani women, they'd have put their support behind RAWA instead of the Northern Alliance. Donate to the Afghan Women's Mission.
"Anonymous" is right about women in the US too. It's one global continuum and just a matter of degree.

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