Development News from Afghanistan

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Afghan women’s shelter helping women, child brides

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Kelly Cryderman
CanWest News Service
Sunday, December 02, 2007

HERAT, Afghanistan — The women’s shelter in Herat looks like many others seen around the world. There are guards at the heavily fortified gatehouse, and three single dormitory-style beds in every room. The building is filled with women who have sad stories of uneasy marriages.

But different from most shelters is the presence of 11-year-old Mahbakhat, an orphan whose own life tale — however short — seems more sorrowful than all the rest.

“Now she finds this courage,” said Suraya Pakzad, the executive director of Voice of Women Organization, which runs the shelter, one of the first in Afghanistan.

Although the shelter managers say Mahbakhat has gained a lot of weight since she arrived emaciated five months ago, she is still mousey-looking.

It is difficult to fathom the slight, cross-eyed child as anything else than a schoolgirl. The youngest wife in the shelter barely speaks and stays burrowed in Pakzad’s arms throughout an interview.

“She’s just a kid,” Pakzad said.

At age nine Mahbakhat was an unhappy orphan, living with her brother and his wife. There aren’t many details from this period but the girl believed life was unbearable enough that she set herself on fire with matches and oil — a common method of suicide among Afghan girls and women. She badly burned her arms, chest and face.

When asked, she shows her scars with trepidation. She doesn’t like to talk about it because her brother, who is her guardian, thinks it was an accident.

After she was burned, her brother had Mahbakhat engaged to a much older man. He told her with her scars it was unlikely anyone else would ever want to marry her.

Seven months ago, the marriage vows took place and she moved in with her 45-year-old husband. The man told Mahbakhat’s brother he wouldn’t have sexual relations with her until she was a few years older.

But her husband broke this promise and Mahbakhat became his unwilling lover once, twice or several times a day, Pakzad said.

Mahbakhat ran away from her husband and back to her brother’s house. Her brother’s wife helped Mahbakhat get to the shelter — an unusual act in Afghanistan.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a woman help a woman,” Pakzad said. “Usually the abuse woman against woman is the worst.”

Pakzad said when Mahbakhat arrived at the shelter, she had terrible infections and was in so much pain she could not sit down comfortably. She often cowered in the corner of the room and would not speak to anybody, even as the other women around her joked and worked at needlepoint.

Mahbakhat, which means “lucky moon” in Dari, now has to stay in the shelter until she can get a divorce. Otherwise the men in her family will take her back to her husband.

Once the divorce goes through, she will return to the home of her brother and his wife. Her brother will be asked to sign a paper promising that Mahbakhat will not be married again until age 18.

Now, months on, Mahbakhat is beginning to smile regularly, talk a bit more, and takes delight in her pink painted toes and fingernails. She will travel to Kabul next week for surgery, to try to fix some of the damage that has been internally done to her young body. Pakzad hopes to get her surgery for her scars as well.

It is some happiness to Pakzad, a married mother of six who has been crusading for women’s rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban days of the late 1990s. Secretly at homes in Kabul she taught school classes to girls and women.

“I cannot see a woman suffering,” she said. “We are half of the population of the world. We are created by the same God.”

Although women are not completely confined to the house as they were in those years, and Pakzad can now teach in the open, Afghanistan remains one of the most conservative countries in the world. Any woman who comes to her shelter is automatically tainted in the eyes of many.

“She is against Afghanistan culture because according to the point of view of many people, the definition of a good woman is to be tolerant, accept any kind of violence that comes from their family, think about the family name, her father’s name and reputation,” Pakzad said.

The shelter started up because several years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found itself with a problem — what to do with the few single Afghan women who were among the masses being deported from Iran.

Herat is about 100 kilometres from the border with Iran and there is a constant flow of Afghans being “repatriated.” Single women cannot rent accommodation on their own in Afghanistan, and if they had no family to return to they ended up in being put in jail because there was no other place for them.

By early 2006, the shelter had become a haven for women whether they were coming from Iran or not. Currently there are about 36 women and six children, even though the shelter should only be housing 25.

Counselling is provided. Women are encouraged to go out and get jobs so they can meet people and find a way to re-marry. It is one of the only ways they can leave the shelter.

Some will also go back to their families or return to their husbands, Pakzad said.

“Sometimes the women agree to the divorce but sometimes they are afraid for the future. They say, ‘if I divorce, even my father and my brother will not support me. They will not allow me to go to their home because they told me we have to take care of our family’s name.'”

But the shelter itself is in a bit of danger. Pakzad has had regular funding for the past two years but that will run out in January. She is hoping one of the Western governments or non-governmental organizations will come to her aid and provide the $10,000 US it takes to maintain the shelter each month.

Ultimately, she said the Afghan government should be paying for the costs.

“We cannot think about sustainable projects,” Pakzad said.

“We are looking for a donor.”

And it seems there will always be a need. Mahbakhat’s case is it far from being exceptional. Pakzad can’t remember whether Mahbakhat is the youngest wife that has ever stayed in the shelter or not.

Marriages at age nine, 10 or 11 are unusual but not unheard of, and forced marriages are still the norm in Afghanistan rather than the exception. The women’s ministry and women’s organizations say about three in five girls in Afghanistan are wed before the legal age of 16.

“This situation is not common but also not rare,” Pakzad said.

Calgary Herald


Written by afghandevnews

December 3, 2007 at 5:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Oh my god! never has a newspaper article been felt so deeply. I will send money for this girls support. do not send her back to her brother please. She should be considered as a woman at risk and without protection by the UNHCR, and I will be calling them Monday, here in Vancouver, B>C>
    Perhaps her brother could allow a guardianship arrangement or similar, even up to adoption. I am willing, and have the support of our local refugee help group in my area. We have already sponsered woman from Afganistan. They also are Duri. Please let me lnow where to send money for this girls support. I will try and find out if a docter here could help with her plastic surgery and eyes. I am 65, but good health and reputation. Please contact me ASAP about this: I feel so strongly.

    darlene reppenhagen

    December 8, 2007 at 4:42 am

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