Displaced Afghan women risk "cheap" marriages, isolation and depression

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 May 2014 05:22 GMT

In a 2012 file photo, a woman and her child walk past a building destroyed during the civil war in Kabul. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

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Women and girls displaced by conflict often prefer death to life in unfamiliar cities far from home

Violence against women is endemic in Afghanistan with cases of “honour” killings, rape, domestic violence and forced marriage well-documented and well-known.

But women and girls who have been displaced from their homes during decades of conflict seem to be even worse off, according to the latest edition of Forced Migration Review, which looks at Afghanistan's displaced people and their prospects after foreign troops withdraw this year.

Displaced Afghan women are especially vulnerable to exploitation and violence because of their often reduced circumstances, according to a piece by Camille Hennion, project director at the Kabul-based Samuel Hall research group.

She cited the experience of one displaced woman, from Herat province, who felt compelled to give her daughter away in marriage because she couldn’t afford to feed her.

"We do it out of hunger, for our children. I gave her away because I needed to,” the 35-year-old was quoted as saying. "Her husband found us…They came because they knew we were refugees here and they know our daughters are cheap."

Living in new and unfamiliar places far from home, displaced women often lose their traditional source of protection - usually male relatives - which results in risky situations such as negotiating a marriage or breaking off an engagement becoming even riskier, Hennion says.

The isolation felt by displaced girls and women is described in another paper by researchers Dan Tyler of Norwegian Refugee Council and Susanne Schmeidl of the non-profit Liaison Office.

One might assume that displaced young women living in cities would enjoy better access to education and other welfare services thanks to more progressive urban attitudes, they say.

In reality, studies show that displaced women and girls in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad are often kept in seclusion, frequently forbidden to venture far from the house.

They are often distressed and depressed by a sense of oppression and a lack of opportunity. "As a result of their situation, a number of urban displaced young women and girls... often speak of preferring death to their current life," the researchers said.

So what hope is there for Afghanistan's women?

A law to eliminate violence against women, signed by President Hamid Karzai in 2009, still hasn't been ratified by parliament. Ratification has been stalled by MPs who view some of the articles as contradicting Sharia, according to Lida Ahmad's essay on sexual violence in Afghanistan.

The law has a clearer definition of sexual violence and bans rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage, child marriage and baad - the traditional practice of settling disputes by giving a young girl from a culprit's family for marriage to a man in the family of the wronged party.

"However, in common with all societies experiencing war or those recently entering a post-war period, the rule of law in Afghanistan is very weak and the fulfilment of this law in the real lives of women is not easy," concludes Ahmad, who works for the Afghan women's group Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA).

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Displaced Afghan women risk "cheap" marriages, isolation and depression

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