Najla and Mariam finish each other’s sentences and banter like sisters who have shared a lot together. But the 17 and 40-year-old women are not sisters, they are housemates in a women’s shelter in Kabul.
They are from different ethnic groups and provinces in Afghanistan but what makes them understand each other’s often sad stares and angry outbursts is that they are both victims of sexual and physical abuse in a country that offers little legal protection for women and girls and is seeing violence against women increasing.
"Tell them about how well you bead those small purses," Mariam tells Najla, who is young enough to be her daughter. "She’s even learning how to cook." The women’s names have been changed to protect their identities.
Najla smiles and stares down at her hands, "I’m not very good, I'm just learning" the 17-year-old whispers. The shelter is run by the Afghan Women Skills Development Center (AWSDC), an Afghan non-profit organization that operates two women’s shelters in Afghanistan and educates Afghan communities on women’s rights issues.
Najla is in the AWSDC shelter because in early 2012 she ran away from her mother’s house, after enduring years of sexual abuse by her stepfather. She was 14 then and went to live with her father but she didn’t stay long because she says her stepmother beat her and didn’t want her around.
"One day I left my father and stepmother’s home and was waiting on the street to try to find a way to get back to my mother’s house, that’s when two police officers forced me into their car and raped me," said Najila with a quivering voice. "Two other police officers then took me to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs handed me to them because I was too young just to be left outside."
Najla says that was one of the toughest moments of her life because she felt like she had nowhere to go, especially when she couldn’t trust any of the people who were supposed to protect her.
"At that point my choices were to go to my mother’s house and be raped by my stepfather, go to my father’s house and be beaten by my stepmother or live on the street," she said.
But at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Afghan governmental department tasked to promote women’s rights and advancement, Najla was told about the AWSDC’s women’s shelters.
"I had heard about the safe houses and was worried about what kind of place it would be, but I figured I didn’t have any other choices," Najla said. "Now I am grateful that this shelter is here."
In January there were 31 women in the AWSDC’s Kabul shelters and according to shelter administrators about 400 women stayed in the shelters in 2013, more than in any other year.
AWSDC’s figures are in line with the increase in violence against women cases as reported by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, a quasi-governmental body mandated to promote and protect the human rights of Afghans.
According to researchers at the AIHRC’s Women’s Rights Division from March to September 2013, the first six months of the Afghan calendar year, 1179 women reported being victims of violence. This is a 15 percent increase in the same period in 2012.
But Fatana Quarishi, from AIHRC’s Women’s Rights Division, says the number of cases of violence against women is much higher than what is being reported to them and other governmental agencies.
"Many women come to us (AIHRC) or call us just to be able to tell someone about the violence they are facing but they don’t want to file an official complaint because doing so would put them in more danger or even get them killed by their husbands or other family members," said Quarishi, who has worked for more than nine years as a researcher for the AIHRC.
Quarishi says she is seeing an increase in reported cases of physical violence against women and economic violence, which she defines as a husband refusing to provide basic necessities like food and a home for his wife. Under Islamic and Afghan law this right is called nafaqah and although a man’s failure to financial support his wife and children may result in a jail sentence for him, legal experts say prosecutions are rare.
More poverty, more violence
Quarishi and women’s rights activists say that there is a correlation between increasing poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan and more violence against women.
"When men can’t find work because there aren’t many jobs out there for them, they come home frustrated and angry because it is out of their control and they take out their anger on their wives or children," said Khorshid Noori, AWSDC’s Deputy Director.
Noori says poverty doesn’t justify the violence but she sees the issue repeated in the cases of the women so many times that she can make the connection.
She says that when an Afghan women is kicked out of her house that is usually the beginning of a dangerous road for her.
Despite the establishment of Family Response Units in some police precincts, women’s rights experts say that when women go directly to the police to complain about violence, they are often advised to go back home or in some cases are at risk of being sexually assaulted by male police personnel.
"If women contact us first, we will help them file a police report and provide them with legal services. We have direct contact with most police precincts," said Sajia Begham, AWSDC’s program director.
She says women’s shelters are a critical resource for abused women and she disagrees with the claims some political and religious leaders make about shelters being places where women are encouraged to runaway from their homes and engage in extramarital affairs or sex before marriage, which are prohibited under Afghan and Islamic law.
"The women that come to us are victims, they are in pain both physically and mentally. They need help and should not be blamed for the violence they have endured," said Begham.
Shelters must be 'priority'
Experts at the Afghan Women’s Network and Women for Afghan Women, two leading women’s rights organizations in Afghanistan, say support for women’s shelters needs to be a priority for international aid agencies, especially as US and NATO forces draw down, foreign aid to Afghanistan lessens, and international attention on Afghan women’s rights issues wane.
"We also worry about the Elimination of Violence Against Women law being repealed. Although it isn’t being implemented as effectively as we would like, the law still gives women a legal case against many forms of violence," Sonia Aslami, the Afghan Women’s Network Data Officer, told Al Jazeera.
Aslami says the EVAW law, which was enacted in 2009, has been useful for raising awareness about the many forms of violence against women but that more cases need to be prosecuted under the law for it to really have an effect on preventing violence.
"Women’s rights is about giving women options and shelters offer women a safe place to go if it is too dangerous for them to stay in their homes," Shukria Khaliqi, program manager for Women for Afghan Women, a non governmental organization which operates ten women’s shelters and offers legal services, told Al Jazeera.
Khaliqi says that if women don’t have access to shelters, they sometimes have to return to their parent’s home.
"Because of a lack of education, job training, and family limits on women working outside of the home, these women can’t earn an income and are dependent on male family members for their survival," said Khaliqi.
40-year-old Mariam, who says her husband refuses to financially support her and beats her, has gone back and forth between her husband’s home and her parent’s home at least five times in the last six years.
She was married at 17 and has six children. Mariam says her parents are old and fragile.
"They don’t have anything themselves so they can’t help me either," Mariam who is working with the AWSDC’s defense lawyers to get the family courts to grant her a divorce, told Al Jazeera.
Her youngest son is six years old and lives with her at the shelter. She says that her husband claims that their youngest son is not his and that she committed adultery, which according to a recent draft of the new Afghan penal code could result in her being stoned to death.
"He wouldn’t allow me to go to the doctor so how could I leave the house to have any relationship with another man. It’s just an excuse for him not to worry about paying for food and clothes for me and my youngest son," said Mariam. Her other children are teenagers and still live with her husband.
At the shelter Mariam and the other women are learning how to run a home-based business making fruit preserves. Shelter administrators say the money the women make from the business is put away in the safe for them and when the women leave the shelter they are given the money they have earned to help support them.
Some women stay a few weeks in the shelters and some longer than a year. Noori says all are offered psychological counseling, legal services, and opportunities to learn about Islam, their legal rights, and marriage.
"We have six women whose legal cases have been closed but they don’t have anywhere to go, so they are in our long term shelter and are going to school," said Noori.
One of those women is Najla, who says she wants to finish school.
"I want to study law so I can defend women’s rights like the women who work with us here [in the shelter]," said Najla.