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Page last updated at 23:20 GMT, Sunday, 16 August 2009 00:20 UK
What are we fighting for?

By Jane Corbin
Reporter, BBC Panorama

Zeinab set fire to herself after two years of beatings by her husband

The smell of disinfectant mingled with burnt flesh was overpowering - I was in the special burns unit in Herat's hospital.

It was set up by a French charity in the Afghan city to treat women who set fire to themselves, usually to escape a violent husband or a forced marriage.

There I found Zeinab, an 18-year-old mother of two. Her eyes were vacant, her body covered with a mesh suit to conceal the raw flesh. After two years of constant beating she had poured oil from a lamp over herself, in front of her husband.

"I was going to wash it off. I am not the sort that would commit suicide," she told me, "then he jeered and said 'Look, she spent 20 Afghanis of my money to buy oil and didn't even burn herself'".

Zeinab grabbed the matches and set herself alight. This one unit sees 100 cases each year, but most women die before they reach the hospital.

I was in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 when the whole world expressed outrage over the medieval regime which had forbidden women to work, banned girls from schools and executed women in a football stadium.

After the country was liberated, women were supposed to cast off their burkhas and embrace the new democracy introduced by President Hamid Karzai's government.

The new Constitution promised them equality and human rights under the law.

Eight years on, as I travelled around Afghanistan listening to their stories, I found that the vast majority of women are still downtrodden and desperate.

But some brave women are fighting against the odds to improve their own lives and those of other women.

Saida got married at a young age
Saida has taken refuge from her abusive husband in a women's shelter

Sold for sex

A staggering 60% of women are still forced into marriage as children - often as young as nine or ten. That has not changed since the West intervened, despite Afghan law stating that girls under 16 should not be married.

In practice, the government and families ignore the law. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, I found 17-year-old Saida who was on the run from her husband.

Her father had died when she was little and her brothers had claimed her as their property. They sold her off, at the age of 9, to a 60-year-old man.

"If he saw a shoe or a stick, anything - he would beat me with it," Saida said, "I had four miscarriages because of the beating and the stress".

Then her husband took his child bride on the road to places where they were not known and sold her to other men, forcing her to have sex with them.

Finally, Saida confided in a woman at a shrine in Mazar-i-Sharif, the police were alerted and Saida was taken to a women's shelter.

Staff at the shelter are helping her get a divorce, but her husband will not agree to let her go.

"He is in touch with my relatives on the phone," said Saida "He says he is praying for an opportunity to drink my blood".

'I do not accept bribes'

Afghanistan is a lawless place - the government is not able to implement its own laws to keep women safe or to protect them from a resurgent Taliban.

Prosecutor of Herat, Maria Bashir
Prosecutor of Herat, Maria Bashir, is risking her life daily to bring justice

However, some women are standing up to the extremists. I spent time with the first female Prosecutor of Herat, Maria Bashir, who is guarded day and night by a posse of security men.

She has survived one bombing attack but her children are unable to go to school or to play with friends for fear of kidnap. The son of another law officer was beheaded by people who thought he was Maria's child.

"I do not accept bribes. I have many enemies because I have never acted illegally," Maria explained.

She continues to try to bring justice to the poor, especially women. But the police are reluctant to investigate crimes against women, and male judges often drastically reduce the jail sentences of men found guilty of such crimes.

"We are far from seeing the picture of equality promised under our Constitution," Maria said.

Women workers

One of the most inspiring women I met showed me how important it is to start at the grassroots to improve the lives of women.

Maryam set up a jam-making business when she returned as a refugee to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. She employed poor women from her small village. It was the first time they had earned money and had any independent life outside the home.

Maryam is building a factory to employ more women to make jam

Maryam applied to be a contestant on the Afghan version of Dragon's Den - she promised her conservative family she would wear a hijab and cover her face to respect their honour.

Yet, the local Taliban began to threaten her after she got through the first three rounds of the contest.

"I told them I didn't do anything against Islam," Maryam said, "'Who are you to tell me what to do' I said".

The price for standing up to the Taliban was high - Maryam and her family had to flee their village.

But she came second in the television contest, winning a cheque for $10,000. With the money, she bought land on an industrial estate in Herat and is building a big jam factory to employ even more women.

I saw pathetic sights, women beggars and drug addicts, faceless women in burkhas who wanted to talk to me but were too afraid.

But I met courageous women too, including women activists working despite the threat of assassination and women MPs who stand up to bullying and intimidation in Parliament.

And most encouraging of all many young girls determined to finish school and have a career.

With 80% of Afghan women still illiterate, change will only eventually come if there is an equal opportunity for both girls and boys to be educated and if some measure of meaningful protection for women is introduced.

Change for women is painfully slow in Afghanistan and people are full of foreboding about what will happen after the presidential election if talks with the so-called 'moderate' Taliban go ahead.

Panorama: What are we fighting for? is on BBC One, Monday 17 August at 8.30pm.

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