We are seated in the living room of the Kabul Family Guidance Center and shelter for abused women. The home is traditionally furnished with large, soft pillows for visitors to sit on instead of chairs. We listen carefully as one resident, Fahima, haltingly describes through a translator why she fled to the shelter, which is at a secret location in Kabul to protect the women from violent family stalkers. While just a teenager, Fahima was forced to marry a man with “bad habits” who drank, took drugs and beat her “ a lot.” He also molested the couple’s daughter. Fahima is now seeking a divorce with the help of shelter lawyers. But a future without a brutal husband will be nearly as bad as one with, says Fahima. Society looks upon single mothers as it does “a prostitute.”
The reality is, Afghan women endure sustained torture, from broken arms to attacks with scalding water and acid. Others are victims of honour killings, called baad, when a man kills a female relative to restore a family’s ‘tarnished reputation.’ Such acts are just an excuse to murder a woman you don’t want anymore, says Lauryn Oates of Burnaby, who helped train surveyors for the UNICEF and Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, which was completed three years ago. The survey revealed how oblivious women are of their rights, Oates says. “When asked, ‘Do you think it is permissible for your husband to beat you,’ 91 per cent said ‘yes.’ Yet they all think it is unjust.”
Ironically, progressive laws exist to prevent such abuses. This includes the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), which was pushed through parliament by women MPs in 2009. It’s not just ordinary citizens but police and judges who are are ignorant of EVAW’s protections, Oates says. Unfortunately, “cultures are shaped by the people in power.”
Women lose out in other instances where judges invoke personal biases instead of law, says Afghan MP Elay Ershad. “The divorce judge is usually a man who says, ‘shame on you, why are you applying for a divorce?’
“Divorce often means losing custody of the children,” says Ershad, who is a single mother of two well-educated and independent-minded teenagers.