Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Refuge for Afghan Runaways

Women who escape domestic troubles are often forced to fend for themselves on the streets.
By Sadeq Behnam
Sahar was young and in love. Desperate at attempts by her family to marry her off to someone else, she ran away with her boyfriend, hoping they could start a new life together



Instead, she was picked up by policemen who took her outside the city, raped her and put her in jail. Under Afghan law, those who run away from home can be jailed for up to six months. Married women who leave their husband’s home can be imprisoned for a year.



Sahar, 22, is now homeless. She has been abandoned by her family, for the twin shame of having run away and having been raped.



“I am tired of this excruciating life. I will wait for a while. If the government doesn’t heed my condition, I will commit suicide and just rest forever,” said Sahar, adding her rapists are still free and working in the police department. No one has even questioned them.



Shegofa, 39, also has nowhere to go after running away from her husband who began beating her after taking another wife. He reported her to the police, and she was jailed for six months.



Now she spends her days sitting at the side of the road in an old dress and shoes, her four-year-old daughter lying beside her. Her parents have rejected her, and the only way she can support herself is by begging.



“If I did not have this little child, I would kill myself just to stop the pain,” she said.



Many Afghan women like Shegofa and Sahar run away from what they see as an intolerable situation, only to find themselves trapped in an even worse nightmare. Rejected by their families, unable to find work, they are forced to resort to begging or prostitution just to survive.



While some complain that assistance organisations and the Women’s Affairs Department have done nothing for them, there is at least a growing awareness among public officials that the situation is reaching a crisis point.



“There are at least 30 women that we know of without shelter in the city of Herat,” said Sima Sher Mohammadi, chairwoman of the Women’s Affairs Department for Herat province. “But if we take into account women with family problems and women in the entire district, this figure could be several times higher.”



She admitted the city has little capacity to help women like Naz Gul, who is just 16 and currently staying with Sher Mohammadi following her release from prison. She was jailed five months ago on a charge of fornication, and, now that she is free, is alone and frightened.



“I have no one,” she said, weeping. “My family has threatened to kill me, because I have become a source of shame for them.”



Soraya Pakzad, head of the Voice of Women Organisation, a non-governmental organisation, puts the blame for Herat’s high rate of suicide among women on the absence of shelters.



“Many women who fall victim to domestic violence kill themselves, because they have nowhere to go,” she said.



Herat has an unusually high number of women who have resorted to self-immolation. Dr Barakatullah Mohammadi, head of emergency services at Herat Hospital, reported that he had seen close to 250 cases within the past six months.



“Of these, about 60 per cent died,” he said. “Most attempted suicide because of family violence.”



The government is trying to help, insists Asluddin Jami, deputy governor of Herat Province. But he said financial constraints mean that without financial assistance from Kabul, the regional administration is hard-pressed to find the funds to build new shelters.



That means that the only shelter that exists in the Herat was built with the help of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. It supports girls and women who ran away to neighbouring Iran, only to be caught by police and sent home.



“We had 30 girls and women living at this shelter,” said Sher Mohammadi. “Most of them were finally reconciled with their families. But nine are still there.”



There are plans afoot to build a new refuge, again with the financial support of the UN, that will house 60 women, she said.



Activists insist that providing a safe haven is the best way to help women like Naz Gul. “Women need a place where they can feel safe,” said VWO’s Pakzad. “That is the only way we can keep them from committing suicide.”



Sadeq Behnam and Sudabah Belqis are freelance journalists in Herat.

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