Shelter provides hope for abused women in western Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Cornelia Walther

HERAT, Afghanistan, 11 January 2010 - Nafiza Popal, 45, manages Herat's only women's shelter, providing a refuge for women in distress, the vast majority of whom have fled their husbands after experiencing physical violence.

When a woman arrives at the shelter she meets a psychosocial consultant and a nurse. If her problem is of a legal nature, she is able to see a lawyer. The location of the shelter is kept secret, even from family members.

"Last month we took care of Haidary, a girl whose nose and ears had been cut," said Ms. Popal. "She had found out that her husband was betraying her with another woman and tried to argue with him. He answered with his knife. Today, the husband is in jail and the woman is back with her family."

The shelter was established by Afghan Voices of Women and UNIFEM in 2003. UNICEF has been supporting it since 2008, by training social workers and providing equipment.

'Half her body was burned'

Fariba is just 10 years old, but she is already married. Her brother arranged her marriage to a 45-year-old man, in exchange for $5,000.

"Fariba came here some days ago," said Ms. Popal. "Half of her body was burned. When she tried to prepare a meal for her husband, she had poured hot water over herself; the cooking pot was too heavy for her."

"The marriage was celebrated under the condition that the husband would not touch the girl before her 14th birthday," added Ms. Popal. "What an empty promise!"

Today, thanks to the support of the women's shelter, Fariba's husband is in jail.

Classes foster independence

Fifty women, on average, come to the shelter every month. They usually stay between six months and four years, and attend classes in tailoring, literacy and carpet weaving.

"I may never be independent, but at least I know that I could earn money for myself if I got a chance," said Arzo Nusrat, 25, who fled to the shelter with her daughter after being beaten by her husband.

For those women who stay longer in the shelter, Ms. Popal and her co-workers find small jobs for them. Depending on their level of education, the women are employed as cleaners, cooks or secretaries. When a man is interested in establishing a relationship with one of them, his offer goes through the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

The shelter is a glimmer of hope for women like Haidary, Fariba and Arzo, yet they represent just a fraction of the women who face domestic violence in the region. In response, UNICEF and its partners are working to give hope to all Afghani women facing abuse with expanded shelter programmes and widespread education campaigns.