#HearMeToo: Afghan women, the faces of change

Date: Monday, November 12, 2018

The Women's Protection Centre teaches women like Tabasum Bahar how to create beautiful works of art such as elegant clothes and embroidered scarves that guarantee income . Photo: UN Women/Zahra Khudadadi
The Women's Protection Centre teaches women like Tabasum Bahar how to create beautiful works of art such as elegant clothes and embroidered scarves that guarantee income . Photo: UN Women/Zahra Khudadadi

“I feel so proud of my work. So proud of being part of a movement that helps women like me who have survived violence,” says Tabasum Bahar*, eyes flashing with the conviction forged by surviving a painful past.

“The women I train want to be independent. We don’t want to depend on someone who feeds us and because of that we have to bow down to all the anger and threats. If you have skills, you do not have to depend on anyone except yourself.”

The words of Bahar’s personal, hard-fought truth echo in the lives of so many women in Afghanistan. She was four when her father got her engaged to a much older man, part of an exchange to secure a wife for her brother. When she was 17 and was expected to formally enter the marriage, she refused because she knew her future husband was taking drugs. His family kidnapped and drugged her. When she somehow managed to call the police, the violators were sent to jail. But after only a year, they raised the issue with community elders, and everyone agreed that she had to go through with the marriage. Everyone except Bahar, that is.

The marriage took place, within months Bahar had a daughter, and the nightmare intensified. One day, her husband threw a pot of boiling water over Bahar. A doctor treated the burns which covered half of her body, and then sent her and her daughter to live in a Women’s Protection Centre that shelters survivors of violence.

The centre kept Bahar safe, even transferring her to another city when the police failed to arrest her husband. After four years there, feeling restored in body and spirit, Bahar took the still unusual step in Afghanistan of finding her own place to live independently. But no one knows where it is—not her mother or anyone else in her family—because too many people would find it acceptable that her husband has a right to kill her and claim their daughter, now five years old. Bahar lives with fear of this discovery, constant and unrelenting. Yet she radiates determination, because she has found a way forward, as a face of change.

Each day, she goes to the Women’s Protection Centre, where a steady stream of new survivors arrives seeking shelter and protection. Applying the training she herself acquired in her early days there, she teaches them the skills that mean safety in the future. The women make elegant clothes and embroidered scarves that are works of art and guarantees of income.

“The centre gives us hope, it enables us to have our own wings,” Bahar says.

The Women’s Protection Centre is part of a network of 11 shelters in nine provinces across Afghanistan. Supported by UN Women and funded by the governments of Australia, Iceland, Sweden and Norway, they have offered refuge to more than 1,600 survivors of gender-based violence this year, along with a combination of medical, legal and psychosocial services, and skills training so that women can restart their lives. Family Guidance Centres in five provinces offer mediation support, where lawyers, social workers and others engage with women who remain in their communities without facing any imminent risks.

“Shelter services are part of a continuum of care for women who survive violence. Access to comprehensive services for survivors – in the community and in shelters – are essential in Afghanistan, where violence against women remains at a very high level,” explains Aleta Miller, UN Women Representative in Afghanistan. According to national statistics, 87 per cent of Afghan women will experience violence in their lifetimes. The vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by husbands or family members.

“Through technical guidance and funding, UN Women in Afghanistan has supported the pathway of services that a survivor of violence may need from within her family or community, and through Women’s Protection Centres where necessary. Our support to comprehensive services is coupled with our prevention programming, aimed at ultimately transforming the harmful social norms that drive violence,” Ms. Miller said.

In 2018, a new anti-harassment law stipulated jail terms and fines for perpetrators of harassment against women and children for the first time, adding a layer of protection to the existing law on eliminating violence against women. A revised penal code finally criminalized the five most serious offences under the anti-violence law and ended the past practice of allowing so-called “honour killing” as a mitigating factor in murder trials. Free legal aid and specialized lawyers are now in place to support survivors who pursue cases.


Justice Anisa Rasooli. Photo: UN Women/Ishaq Ali Anis

"Not all women in Afghanistan are women in blue burqas begging… we can be the best engineers, doctors, judges, teachers”

Judge Anisa Rasooli
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Judge Anisa Rasooli, who recently became the first woman ever to serve on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court, points out, “Twenty-three years ago when I became a judge, no woman would go to a rule of law institution. Survivors of violence were not noticed or legally protected. Now many women do understand where to find help and that they can pursue cases. We have 300 women judges, up from only 20 two decades ago, and their presence encourages other women to come forward.”

With UN Women’s assistance, the Government of Afghanistan recently instituted its first online database compiling data on cases of violence. Offering standardized data that can be systematically analysed, it bolstered an existing process of annual reporting that informs evidence-based programming by all partners in preventing and responding to gender-based violence. 

In five provinces, other efforts supported by UN Women help communities shift deeply entrenched attitudes and beliefs that justify violence against women. Meetings with local authorities, community elders, religious leaders, women and men, encourage people to reflect on how they might work together for harmonious communities and families for both women and men.

For many women, it is a first-ever chance to speak up and share their concerns. For men, it is a chance to rethink assumptions about gender roles and family life. Some families are now agreeing to send their daughters to school, a basic step, yet with huge implications—a woman who can read not only has a better chance to earn her own income, but also has a greater chance of knowing and claiming her right to live free from violence.

Judge Rasooli stresses that eliminating violence requires a holistic response tackling the major drivers of poverty, illiteracy and insecurity. Like Tabasum Bahar, she has faith in Afghan women, and in the future. “Afghan women today are vocal, visible and playing key roles,” she comments. “We can be the best judges, teachers, doctors, engineers—if the conditions are right.” 

*The name has been changed to protect the privacy of the survivor.