Today brings another terrible story about what happens to women in Afghanistan when they try to stand up for their rights.
Twenty-year-old Mah Gul was allegedly beheaded after her mother-in-law attempted to force her into prostitution and she refused. This happened in Herat, a beautiful city in the west of the country, but one where, like much of Afghanistan, women struggle.
ActionAid partner Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) headed by the amazing Selay Ghaffar, a prominent women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, works in Herat helping women who have suffered from domestic violence.
They run shelters and a legal aid programme to help women who often know little about their rights. It sounds crazy to us but sometimes women don’t even realise that it is wrong or against the law for their husband to beat them.
Last year I went to Herat and met some of the women being helped by HAWCA. Shogofa, then 18, had suffered 65% burns after setting herself on fire. “I had suffered so much abuse from my husband and my in-laws that I could not take it anymore,” she told me. Shogofa’s husband was refusing to let her see their daughter, but she was fighting him in the courts with the help of HAWCA.
I also visited the women’s prison in the city. I met Sakina, then 29, who was in prison for prostitution. In a similar case to Mah Gul, her father had forced her into it to pay for his drug addiction. Chillingly she said she preferred to be in prison than free. “I have no desire to be free. When I am outside I will have to live with my father who takes drugs and he will make me earn money for him. Life in prison is better for women in Afghanistan than life outside.”
But there was also some optimism in the city. Afghanistan’s youngest MP is Naheed Farid, 28, is from Herat. “My constituents really feel that I can represent them, that is why they vote for me. I receive votes from women and men as well. They feel that women can do something – that we can represent our culture, our situation, our background, our religion. That’s why I think men are also optimistic about women – women can do anything if they believe in themselves.”
In Herat and in cities across Afghanistan, ActionAid runs an amazing programme to train ordinary women to become paralegals so they can help women survivors of violence to gain fair and just access to legal compensation. Once trained, paralegals establish community groups and educate other women about their rights.