'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."

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