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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 16:30 GMT
Afghan women scarred by 'hidden' abuse

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent in Afghanistan

Women in the Kabul refuge weave a carpet
Afghan law is stacked against women suffering violence at home
Makia was just 13 when she was forced to marry a 21-year-old man. At the time she was a refugee in Iran.

"I got married when I was very young. I didn't agree to get married but I was forced into it by my mother.

"I suffered from my husband a lot. He was beating me all the time. Eventually I got a divorce and then I moved back in with my mother.

"But my mother had got married while I was away and her husband didn't like me.

"He was always shouting at me and then he started beating me."

Now 18, Makia is somewhere safe for the first time in years, in a women's shelter in Kabul.


In many ways, though, she is one of the fortunate ones.

"I poured a can of fuel over my body," says another woman. "No one took the matches from me."

Covered in bandages, she was being interviewed on Afghan television about why she tried to kill herself.

This report is something of a breakthrough though. Until recently the Afghan media had largely ignored the issue.

Sima Samar, head of the Afghan human rights commission
There's not much protection provided because going to court for an Afghan woman is not really acceptable
Sima Samar, Afghan human rights commission

But a spate of suicide attempts involving women setting fire to themselves has been hard to ignore, particularly in the western city of Herat.

According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, 235 women have tried to killed themselves there by self-immolation. Thirty-three have succeeded.

Forced marriages and domestic abuse are seen as the main cause - most of the women are between 15 and 30 years old.

But this is just the surface of what campaigners say is a huge but hidden problem in every town and village of Afghanistan.

"Abuse and violence against women in this country is endemic," says one specialist on the issue, "but most of the time you don't see it."

Kabul has so far not seen any incidents of self-immolation, but some experts estimate that thousands of women in the capital try to take their lives every year because of their domestic situation - often by taking drug overdoses or some kind of poison.

I don't know how long I was with my husband because he beat me so much on the head I think it's affected my memory
Makia, 18
Sima Samar, a former women's minister and now head of Afghanistan's human rights commission, says the issue has to be taken more seriously.

"The women do not have awareness about their rights," she told the BBC.

"Second, there is a lack of accessibility to the legal system.

"There's not much protection provided in the country because going to a court for an Afghan woman is not acceptable.

"We have to change all these attitudes and culture in the country."


There's a long way to go. As it stands Afghan law is stacked against women suffering violence at home, because only a family member can bring a case involving a domestic matter, not the authorities.

Woman and child in Afghanistan
Men are accused of treating women like servants - and worse

And agencies that try to help women having trouble at home by providing them with shelter have run into trouble themselves - prosecutions have been brought for kidnapping.

In the run-up to International Women's Day on Monday campaign groups held events to highlight the suffering of many Afghan women.

The key, say most activists, is changing the attitude of Afghan men.

But Hanifa, an English teacher, has little hope.

"Most of them they are selfish, that is why they are beating their dear wives because they are thinking about themselves.

"Men think all the women are just there like a servant.

"Their job is just bringing the children and feeding the children and keep their house and do the home chores. Not to do anything else in Afghanistan."

'Bad dreams'

Hanifa teaches at the women's shelter in Kabul but it is a Spartan place.

Although some women there are learning skills like carpet weaving, it doesn't have the resources to provide education and training for all and Makia admits she's struggling to cope with her terrible past experiences.

"I don't know how long I was with my husband because he beat me so much on the head I think it's affected my memory.

"I suffered a lot. I had lots of bad dreams.

"It was very hard. Sometimes I still have those dreams and I get headaches."

Although some things have improved for women in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taleban, there are still too many ways in which they have not.

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