The Afghan women jailed for being victims of rape

In Lashkar Gah, the majority of female prisoners are serving 20-year sentences for being forced to have sex. Terri Judd visited them and heard their extraordinary stories

Beneath the anonymity of the sky-blue burqa, Saliha's slender frame and voice betray her young age.Asked why she was serving seven years in jail alongside hardened insurgents and criminals, the 15-year-old giggled and buried her head in her friend's shoulder.

"She is shy," apologised fellow inmate Zirdana, explaining that the teenager had been married at a young age to an abusive husband and ran away with a boy from her neighbourhood.

Asked whether she had loved the boy, Saliha squirmed with childish embarrassment as her friend replied: "Yes."

Ostracised from her family and village, Saliha was convicted of escaping from home and illegal sexual relations. The first carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, the second 20. These are two of the most common accusations facing female prisoners in Afghanistan.

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah's medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man.

Sitting among the plastic flowers around his desk, where an optimistic United Nations scales of justice poster competed for space with images of Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, Colonel Ghulam Ali, a high-ranking regional security officer, explained sternly that he supported the authorities' right to convict victims of rape. "In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is," he claimed. "I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today's world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations."

But there are signs of progress. A female shura, or consultative council, was established in Helmand province last week to try to combat the injustice of treating an abused woman as a criminal, and not a victim. British officers and Afghan government officials from the province's reconstruction team are also overseeing a project to build humane accommodation for the 400 male and female prisoners.

Inside the fortified compound of the prison in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital, the 330 male prisoners laze about in the shade of their straw huts. The prison security was was recently upgraded with new razor wire and guard posts following the attack on Kandahar's prison in which more than a 1,000 inmates escaped, including 400 Taliban. Past the main gate, inmates – whether on remand and awaiting trial or convicts – are incarcerated alongside 50 insurgents.

In a separate area are the female "criminals" – the youngest is just 13 years old – along with their small children, who must stay with their mothers if no one else will claim them. Their only luxury is a carpet, two blankets, basic cooking facilities and two daily deliveries of bread. They have neither medical care nor, as Colonel Ali acknowledged, "basic human facilities", such as washing areas, electricity and drinking water. All this he hopes will be rectified when the new building his finished.

Pushing her five-year-old son's arm forward imploringly, Zirdana, 25, pointed to the festering wound buzzing with flies. The little boy was just two months old when his mother was convicted of murdering her husband, his father. Zirdana had been handed over to him at the age of seven, as part payment in a financial dispute. She gave birth to the first of her children when she was 11 and was pregnant with her fourth when her husband disappeared and she was accused of killing him. Her three older children were taken from her by her brother-in-law. "When I first came to jail I cried so much blood was coming out of my mouth. My husband's brother told me he would give my children back when I came out of jail but he has become a Talib. Nobody comes to see us in jail. There are a lot of diseases," she said.

Next to her, Dorkhani, 55, sobbed so much that the glint of her tears shone through the mesh of her burqa. Married for four decades to a relatively wealthy man from Nowzad, the couple had fled to Lashkar Gah after a family dispute. When he returned to Nowzad, to try and reclaim his money, he disappeared. "The ones who killed my husband, they have money and they threw me in jail. I am 100 per cent innocent. I have no one, no brother to look after me," she said, explaining that those with cash could buy their freedom.

Last week, in Helmand, the new Women and Children's Justice Shura met and voted in its constitution with the help of advisers from the Afghan Human Rights Committee and support from the Women's Affairs Department, as well as a government legal adviser.

The shura, made up of 20 influential women, mostly teachers, hopes to tackle the inequality of the system by first ensuring that women in the province become aware of their basic right: not to have to endure abuse.

Earlier this year a report by Womankind, Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, revealed that violent attacks against women, usually in a domestic setting, are at epidemic proportions – 87 per cent of women complain of such abuse, and half of it is sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced and, despite laws banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under 16. Many of these girls are offered as restitution for a crime or as debt settlement. Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among women than men.

In the UK, the MP Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the House of Commons International Development Committee, warned: "There is a dangerous tendency to accept in Afghanistan practices which would not be countenanced elsewhere, because of 'cultural' differences and local traditions."

The shura is hoping to provide a place where women can report abuse and create a separate centre for women and girls incarcerated for running away. It would be a compromise of custody without the stigma of being thrown in jail.

"They are very aware of the inequality in the system," said Royal Navy Lieutenant Rebecca Parnell, a member of the Cimic, or civil-military co-operation, team. "The most refreshing thing is that there are plans coming from the Department of Women's Affairs. It is not just us pushing our ideas on to them." The military aid team has programmes for monthly health checks and trauma counselling in the prison as well as vocational training in carpet weaving, tailoring, literacy and basic health education.

As she was led away to her jail cell yesterday, Dorkhani lifted her burqa to reveal a sun-battered face streaked with tears and pleading eyes: "Please, please take our words somewhere where people will be kind and help us."

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