Mellissa Fung is a veteran Canadian correspondent and author whose bestselling first book, Under an Afghan Sky, chronicles her experience as a hostage after she was kidnapped while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2008. This article was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Munawar is the name she wants me to use: it’s not her real one because she’s afraid her in-laws will try to find her. Her story begins far from the safety of the women’s shelter where I first met her.
She came here nearly two years ago. She had been married for six years, to an older man. I ask her his age and she says she does not know. What she does know, however, is her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law abused her physically, sexually, and emotionally almost every day of those six years.
“I tried to run away,” she says, holding back tears. She tried several times – back to her father’s house – but every time her in-laws would come and take her back. Her own family could do little to help. She was married and her place was with her husband’s family and once they got her back, the beatings would get worse.
One night, her father-in-law held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if she wouldn’t have sex with him and she knew she had to get away. Munawar went to the police. They brought her to this shelter where she shares a room with several other women, some with their children. They gather around her as she tells her story. Some of them cry with her.
She’s one of 44 women and 17 children here, the first shelter of its kind in a country where women once had no place to go. Established nine years ago by the NGO Women for Afghan Women, the shelter relies on funding from UN Women, and has become a model for shelters across the country.
It’s a big house, with several floors and a round staircase in the middle. The bedrooms take up a couple floors, with a kitchen in the middle and classrooms on the top floor. I look down from the railings that circle the stairs and see a mattress tied to the bottom.
Zarghoona Momand, the shelter director, tells me the mattress is there in case anyone tries to jump.
Momand says she can accommodate up to 50 women, but there are times when the numbers have swelled to almost 80.
“We need more space,” she says. “Women are more aware of the centers because of the outreach and education out there now. And because of that increased awareness, women are no longer tolerating the abuse they used to have to live with.”
The shelters are a physical manifestation of the progress women have made in the last decade. There are literacy classes, computer classes, and life skills training for the women living here. Most of them never had the chance to go to school when the Taliban ruled.
And like many Afghan women, they are finding their voices and learning how to make decisions for themselves. They’re excited to be learning, to be reading, writing, and working. More than 80% of women in this country are still illiterate, but that is slowly changing with literacy classes and learning centres.
Women are entering the police force and the Afghan National Army, and they make up almost 30 per cent of parliament.
The shackles of the Taliban era are coming off, but not without resistance.
The killing of Farkhunda, a female religious scholar, in March by a mob of men might have been a turning point, but months after her death, most of the men who were charged have been released or had their sentences reduced or commuted, fueling fears among women’s rights groups that authorities did not take her brutal murder seriously.
“It’s two steps forward, three steps back,” says Georgette Gagnon, the outgoing UN human rights director in Afghanistan. “There’s no doubt there’s been progress, but this is a critical time.”
Critical because as international troops withdraw, advocates fear that human rights will tumble to the bottom of the agenda, and they are urging the international community to make aid conditional on women’s rights being upheld.
President Ashraf Ghani had promised to protect the gains women have made, but he has opposition in government. Some conservative imams and lawmakers still subscribe to the belief that women belong to their husbands and in their homes. Shelters like Munawar’s, they say, condone women for breaking Sharia law by leaving their families, no matter how badly they may have been abused.
Some members of government have even tried to shut the shelters down, and at the same time water down the law that makes violence against women a crime.
“We need more shelters, not fewer,” Zarghoona Momand says. She worries what will happen if international agencies start to pull out. “Without international donor funding, it will be very hard to survive.”
For now, Munawar tells me that life at the shelter has been good for her. She’s loved learning how to read and write.
“This is a safe place for me,” she says, smiling through her tears. “I will get back on my feet.” Her eyes are dark and alternately flash with impudence and sadness. She is missing a few teeth – from the beatings, she tells me.
Six long years of abuse have aged her. I asked her how old she is – and she tells me she just turned 19.
That’s when it struck me she was barely 13 when she was married off.
She’s waiting for her case to go to the courts. Once she’s granted a divorce, she will be allowed to go home to her family. But not all of the cases are decided that way. Women for Afghan Women often tries mediation between the women and their families first, with the full knowledge that they are often in danger from those families. If they are not convinced that a woman will be safe returning home, they will keep her at the shelter as long as she needs to stay there.
Despite the fact that a third of her young life has been lived in violence, Munawar’s spirit has not been broken. I asked what she plans to do after she gets a divorce and can leave the shelter.
She smiles and says she would like to open a beauty parlor. “I know a few things about beauty,” she says. “Most of all, I would like to stand on my own two feet.”
Her brown eyes sparkle through the tears and it’s hard not to hope with her, but the hard reality of progress in Afghanistan means that her success will depend on many factors entirely out of her control.
© 2015 Shaw Media