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Abuse of Afghan women: 'It was my decision to die. I was getting beaten every day'

In parts of Afghanistan, women are treated as chattels. Domestic violence leaves many with no escape. By Kim Sengupta in Kabul

Halima spends her life in the shadows. The light shows up her face, which bears the marks of her pain and humiliation - damage inflicted by her violent husband, while his family stood and watched.

The 22-year-old woman's left cheekbone was shattered during one of the many beatings she had to endure for four years.

She has other injuries - burns on her chest caused by having the scalding contents of a kettle flung at her; a broken rib; an arm which gives her constant pain because of the force with which it was repeatedly wrenched. But Halima is lucky. She managed to escape her loveless, tortured marriage and return to her parents in Kabul. She is now hiding at the home of a relation, ever fearful that her husband, Gul Mohammed, and his brothers will come from Paktia province and track her down.

At least Halima had the will to live. "They had tried to destroy my life," she says simply. "I was trying to protect what was left of it. If I had stayed with my husband's family I would surely have died."

Others have been so traumatised by the abuse they have received at the hands of men, and the sheer hardship of life, that they commit suicide, sometimes in the most horrific way: by setting fire to themselves.

Five years after the fall of the Taliban and the liberation of women hailed by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, thanks to the US and British invasion, such has been the alarming rise in suicide that a conference was held on the problem in the Afghan capital just a few days ago.

Those who should be in the best position to help, women MPs, another supposed sign of the brave new Afghanistan, are themselves facing violence and intimidation. Malalai Joya, at 28 one of Afghanistan's youngest MPs, regularly changes addresses because of death threats. "When I speak in parliament male MPs throw water bottles at me. Some of them shout 'take and rape her'.

"Many of the men in power have the same attitude as the Taliban. Women have not been liberated. You want to know how women feel in this country? Look at the rate of suicide," she said.

Nasima Niazi, who represents Helmand, the centre of British operations, is frightened to go back to her constituency. "During Eid I went to visit relations and friends. I had to constantly change my burqa because I was so worried that I was being followed. Obviously it is not possible for me to represent my constituents, women or men, under these circumstances."

Police say the British-led International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf) is putting them under severe pressure vigorously to pursue cases of domestic violence. But, said one police officer: "There are some people here who are old-fashioned. We are trying to change this."

Among the wives who have tried to take their lives is 16-year-old Gulsum. After yet another beating by her heroin-addicted husband, she ran to the kitchen, doused herself oil from a lamp, and lit a match.

Her 40-year-old husband Abdul and his family simply watched. Her life was saved by a neighbour who rushed in, poured a bucket of water over her, and took her to hospital wrapped in a sheet. Gulsum was in a coma and has undergone several operations. More than a month later, her gnarled hands still bleed. Sitting on a hospital bed in Kabul she said: "It was my decision to die. I felt I had no other choice, I was getting beaten every day, but I could not go home because of the shame it would bring on my family. But I did not want to end up like this, with my hands and body like this."

Accurate statistics are difficult to come by, but at least 93 women are believed to have killed themselves last year, with 54 deaths this year. More than 70 per cent of the women who try to kill themselves cannot be saved.

According to a report by the British charity Womankind Worldwide, 60 to 80 per cent of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced. More than half of Afghan women are married before they turn 16, some as young as six. In some rural areas of the country, women are regarded as chattels, exchanged as compensation for a crime or to settle a debt.

Ancil Adrian-Paul of Medica Mondiale, which helps women in conflict zones, said: "A lot of self-immolation and suicide cases are not reported to police for religious reasons, for reasons of honour, shame, stigma. There is this collusion of silence."