Afghanistan has been mired in poverty for over three decades now. When allied forces invaded in 2001, they promised ordinary Afghans a better life.|
Six years on and Afghanistan has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world, its two million war widows are forced to beg on the streets, its children are scavenging from rubbish bins and there is no security for its citizens.
The new Afghan constitution gives women the right to study and work, but Afghan society is still not comfortable with both.
In the last two years a record number of girls schools have been burnt down. That’s not all. Working women and schoolgirls are often harassed and shot in cold blood to frighten other women.
In February 2007, I travelled through Afghanistan starting in Kabul. On my first day there I found Bibi Gul sitting in the snow in a bombed out neighbourhood. Ever so often, a kind man would drop a coin into her outstretched hand; she lost her husband in 2002 when allied forces bombed her neighbourhood.
Now, she supports her two daughters by begging on the streets. She had dreams of educating her girls and giving them a better life, but without an income, she is unable to buy them books and materials needed to attend school.
War has crippled Afghan society and left its beautiful landscape littered with mines, ammunition and tanks. These are now playgrounds for children, who often lose their limbs unknowingly when a mine blows up at the junkyard site.
President Hamid Karzai’s government raised the legal age of marriage to 16. In Afghan culture, girls are sold into marriage sometimes when they are as young as six or seven. There was great hope that the new laws would change that, but throughout my travels I found pre pubescent girls being married off to men as old as sixty. The laws were made on paper only.
My journey took me to the remote village of Taka Timuz in the Northeast of Afghanistan. Here, I saw signs of hope, a small school in the center of the village was educating both boys and girls. I met Nusrat an orphan, who planned to get an education and work in the village. She had hopes of becoming a teacher herself one day.
In western Afghanistan though, a disturbing trend is emerging. Young women are burning themselves to death to avoid the horrors of family life. Forced marriages, poverty, domestic violence are all being blamed for the rise in self immolation.At the central hospital in Herat, I saw a burns ward full of young, disfigured women. The doctor on duty told me that many of these women die because of lack of medicines and morphine.
I met Rahila, who tried to commit suicide because her mother in law beat her with a stick on a daily basis. She told me that she couldn’t take the beatings and the pressure anymore and wanted to end her life. Her husband had done nothing to save her from her domestic situation.
I got a sense that women live in a parallel world in Afghanistan, far from the prying eyes of the world, sequestered in the four walls of their homes. They do not have a social system to fall back on, they are uneducated and do not know their rights. They often spend their entire lives indoors, first in their father’s house and later in their husband's.
They are second class citizens who may have the right to vote, but have no choice in who they marry, where they live and how they conduct their daily lives. They are virtual prisoners and their lives are in sharp contrast to the men, who are free to make and break laws and spend their time as they please.
The Taliban may have been removed from power, but you wouldn’t know it if you travelled through Afghanistan, because for the majority of women, their lives are still controlled by their men.
Photos by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Most girls are relatively free until the age of 11, after which they are made to wear the traditional blue burqa and are shielded from the outside world.
Most widows sit outside of mosques to beg for money, the central mosque in Herat is full of such women.