'In the provinces a woman has to stay at home. The insecurity makes her a paralysed person'

Although things are improving in rural areas, old fears and prejudices remain

Helmand Province

The young woman's corpse was found stuffed in a bag in the Helmand river. But the murder inquiry was hampered by one simple fact – no-one recognised her face.

She was just one of Afghanistan's invisible females, imprisoned in their homes and hidden behind the suffocating burqa. Like many village women, her birth was never recorded, she never owned an identity card and her death was equally anonymous.

The toll of civilian casualties caught up in the war in Afghanistan is well known. Yet 10 times the number of women killed by bombs and bullets set fire to themselves every year – 2,400, according to the UN. It is a reflection of their increasing anguish, despite being promised a better life a decade ago. Across Afghanistan, progress has been made. More girls are going to school, there are women in parliament, there is a Ministry of Women's Affairs and a law forbidding violence against them. But for the females of Helmand – the British area of operations – much of that brave new world has yet to filter down.

"The capital is a completely different place for a woman compared to provinces like Helmand," explained Samira Hamidi, director of the Afghan Women's Network. "In a conservative province like Helmand, they are expected to stay at home. The impact of the insecurity makes an Afghan woman a paralysed person."

Young girls are still sold off to pay a debt. Many are forced into marriage as young as 12, raped by their husbands and left pregnant at a dangerously immature age. One in 11 women do not survive childbirth. Illiterate and unable to earn a living, they are reliant on their families. If they run away, they are accused of zina (illegal sexual activity). Widows who refuse to obey their family are reduced to begging.

Captain Tabita Hansen, a Danish army officer, recalled a widow turning up at the base with her eight children, having been turfed out of her home when it was occupied by the Afghan National Police. They had compensated her with a bag of wheat.

"She was asking for help. She had literally nothing. It was just horrible. I said: 'I would do anything to help you. I would give you my right arm. But we are not the Red Cross'," explained Capt Hansen. As part of a military Female Engagement Team, Capt Hansen has been the author of one of the micro-finance projects springing up across Helmand, attempting to give women some independence. They have started sewing small cloth dolls – ladies in sparkly outfits with their own mini burqas or cross-legged holy men – in the hope of creating an income.

At the women's centre in Gereshk, Fatimea Noorzai brandished one doll with a strange familiarity – President Hamid Karzai.

"Karzai has given these promises to help Afghans, but so far he has done nothing for women's rights," explained the former headmistress, whose husband was murdered and school burned down. "It is very difficult and dangerous for us. A lot of women in here have no money for food. Either their husbands are dead or they are drug addicts," she explained, a reference to rampant addiction and domestic abuse.

At the Department of Women's Affairs building in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, Saleha – a wizened, pixie-like creature with leathery skin – drew a wrinkled finger ominously across her throat as she said: "If we get out from our home, the Taliban will kill us."

Around her, her fellow village widows sat barefoot and enveloped in black, barely a mouthful of teeth between them. They have been provided with a lifeline by Mercy Corps, one of the few NGOs to brave Helmand's battle zone: chickens and lambs, so they have eggs or meat to sell at the bazaar.

David Haines, Mercy Corps Programme Manager in Afghanistan said: "Opportunities and the level of education amongst women in particular in Helmand are abysmally low, but the thirst for learning is certainly there.

"When we opened registration for one of our vocational training courses for women earlier this year we had more than 3,000 applications within 48 hours."

There are signs of progress: there are new female lawyers and teachers, two of the 25 representatives on the Lashkar Gah council are women and attempts are being made to provide healthcare, including a new maternity unit, built with the help of a British Military Stabilisation Support Team.

Out of the 6,384 police trained in Helmand, 13 are women, used largely for domestic violence cases.

"They take off their burqas and it is like a superman transformation," explained PC Mel Hooper, who has helped to train them. "They are feisty and confident. They work with the men with no issues whatsoever."

Yet only recently one of the new policewomen explained that her own brothers were trying to kill her for taking on the job.

Two years ago the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) banned forced and child marriages, baad (using daughters to settle disputes) and honour killings. In the courts in Lashkar Gah, Chief of Justice Najibi shrugged when asked how many people in the villages understood that baad was illegal: "Maybe four in 100".

He added: "We are aware of that law (EVAW), but last year we only had four cases relating to violence against women. In our conservative society, the ladies don't know their rights."

One successful prosecution resulted in a 16-year sentence for a man who had murdered his wife. "I asked the prosecutor why he had come forward," said one British aid worker. "He explained he thought that we would not do anything; that he would not be punished."

Leon Tomlin, Provincial Reconstruction Team deputy head of mission in Helmand, insisted: "Women's issues are an important issue on the agenda, but it takes a long time to address. Addressing it in one of the most conservative provinces is particularly difficult."

In the words of one British advisor: "We are at the bottom of the mountain looking up."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?