'We're All Handcuffed in This Country.' Why Afghanistan Is Still the Worst Place in the World to Be a Woman

Lauren Bohn

It was a sunny morning in early December last year when 23-year-old Khadija set herself on fire. She kissed her three-month old son Mohammed goodbye and said a short prayer.

“Please God, stop this suffering,” she pleaded in the sun-soaked courtyard of her home in Herat, Afghanistan as she poured kerosene from a copper lamp over her small frame. She then struck a match. The last thing she heard were birds chirping.

The next morning, she realized her prayer had gone unanswered. Khadija, who asked TIME not to publish her last name or her family’s, woke up at Herat Hospital in Afghanistan’s only burn unit, her body blanketed in third-degree burns and bandages.

“I am not alive, but I am not dead,” Khadija told me later that week, crying and gripping the hands of her sister, Aisha. “I tried running away and I failed.” Like the majority of Afghan women, Khadija was a victim of domestic abuse. For four years, she said, her husband beat her and told her that she’s ugly and dumb – “a nobody.”

“Women never have any choices,” Khadija said last December in the hospital, as tears streamed down her face, a barely recognizable charred patchwork of fresh scars. “If I did, I wouldn’t have married him. We’re all handcuffed in this country.”

Khadija’s decision to set herself on fire prompted her husband to be arrested on charges of domestic violence, an unusual situation in a country where abuse against women is rarely criminalized. But even while he was serving his prison sentence, Khadija felt more trapped than when she tried to take her own life. Her husband’s parents, who were looking after her son, issued Khadija an ultimatum: If she would tell the police that she lied—that her husband didn’t actually abuse her—and if she returned home, then she could see her son. If she refused, she would never see him again.

In a country racked by decades of war and a dearth of resources, Khadija’s story shows how women in Afghanistan are struggling to live with dignity. It also highlights how, in the face of little governmental support and dwindling international aid, women are stepping in to help one another.

Afghan women wait in line to vote at a polling centre for the country's legislative election in Herat province on October 20, 2018.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Afghanistan, the country of 35 million people where America has waged its longest war. The war was billed, in part, as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, a period in which women were essentially invisible in public life, barred from going to school or working. In a 2001 radio address to the nation, First Lady Laura Bush urged Americans to “join our family in working to ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.” In 2004, President George W. Bush declared victory in the country.

But seventeen years and almost $2 trillion later, the country is still in turmoil as the Taliban maintains its grip on almost 60 percent of the country, the most territory it has controlled since 2001. In October, the U.N. said Afghan civilian deaths were the highest since 2014: from January to September 2018, at least 2,798 civilians were killed and more than 5,000 others injured. Gallup’s most recent survey of Afghans, conducted in July, revealed strikingly low levels of optimism: Afghans’ ratings of their own lives are lower than in any country in any previous year.

As in all war-torn societies, women suffer disproportionately. Afghanistan is still ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. Despite Afghan government and international donor efforts since 2001 to educate girls, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80 percent face forced marriage, many before the age of 16. A September watchdog report called the USAID’s $280 million Promote program – billed the largest single investment that the U.S. government has ever made to advance women’s rights globally – a flop and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

Government statistics from 2014 show that 80 percent of all suicides are committed by women, making Afghanistan one of the few places in the world where rates are higher among women. Psychologists attribute this anomaly to an endless cycle of domestic violence and poverty. The 2008 Global Rights survey found that nearly 90 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic abuse.

“It hurts me to say this, but the situation is only getting worse,” said Jameela Naseri, a 31-year-old lawyer at Medica Afghanistan, an NGO established by German-based Medica Mondiale, defending women and girls in war and crisis zones throughout the world. Naseri oversees Khadija’s case, as well as the cases of dozens of other women who are seeking refuge or divorce from allegedly abusive husbands. In the face of what she calls “a war against women,” she is leading an informal but determined coalition of female psychologists, doctors and activists in Herat who take on cases like Khadija’s.

“I meet a new Khadija almost every day,” she said, while fielding a call from an activist. Earlier that week, a man claimed his wife had died from a longstanding illness but activists suspect he murdered her. “We do the best to help these women, but sometimes we can’t. That’s hard to accept.”

Herat, a province in western Afghanistan near the border of Iran, has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the country and some of the highest rates of suicide among women. Psychologist Naema Nikaed, who was working with Khadija, said she handles several cases of attempted suicide every week. Most go unreported due to fear of tarnishing a family’s honor.

“The government wants to say they’re prioritizing women,” a female Afghan diplomat told me, speaking on condition of anonymity during the NATO Summit in Brussels in July. “But they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption, the monster of war.” Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the fourth most corrupt country in the world, noting that corruption hampers humanitarian aid from getting where it needs to go.

At the NATO summit, I asked President Ashraf Ghani why two-thirds of girls are still out of school. He largely blamed the numbers on ill-conceived, misguided Western aid efforts that fail to acknowledge the realities on the ground.

“To get to the very nitty gritty, how many girls schools at the age of puberty have a toilet? That’s fundamental,” he said. “How many girl schools are three kilometers away? The issue here is that international experts were male-centric. They talked about gender but their pamphlets were glossy and totally lacking content.”

But activists say his administration has failed to take responsibility for clear backslides in women’s rights. In 2015, 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran. The government did little to mete out justice and ignored demands for more action to combat violence against women.

What’s more, in February 2018, Afghanistan passed into law a new criminal code that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) hailed as a milestone in the country’s criminal justice reform. However, one chapter of the code was removed before it was passed: the chapter penalizing violence against women. In June, a United Nations report took the Afghan criminal justice system to task for ignoring violence against women.

“Women’s rights were supposed to be the success story of the 2001 invasion,” Naseri said. “But the legacy of war is still killing our women.”

Afghan women wear masks of 27 year-old Farkhunda who was beaten to death by a mob after being falsely accused of burning a Quran, during a protest held by the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan at the site of the attack in Kabul, Monday, July 6, 2015.

Naseri knows this legacy all too well. Her own mother was forced to marry her father when she was only 12 years old and says she was then abused for years. In order to go to school, Naseri and her mother crafted lies so that her father would let her leave the house. They told him she was going to the mosque or to Quran studies. School wasn’t a place for girls, he contended. Eventually, they convinced him to let her attend university; she became the first and only woman in her family with a degree.

In the face of so much oppression, Naseri vowed to become a lawyer and help women like her own mother and sister, who was forced into marriage at the age of 14.

“Afghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us,” she said in her office at Medica. Across the hall, a 16-year-old girl named Sahar sat waiting to speak to Naseri. Her mother brought her to Medica after she tried to jump off the sixth-floor balcony of their building. She was to be married off to her cousin in days, and said her uncle had been raping her since she was just 10.

“In doing this work alone, the risks are high. At any moment, we could be killed,” Naseri said. Not a week goes by, she said, that she doesn’t receive death threats. Just last year, an angry mob of men came to the center threatening to burn it to the ground, claiming Naseri was promoting divorce and damaging the fabric of Afghan society.

“I know what it’s like to be the victim,” Naseri said. While at university, she fell in love with a classmate. She says she is the first woman in her family whose marriage wasn’t arranged.

In March, on International Women’s Day, she gave birth to a boy. “I refuse to bring my son into a world where he thinks women are second-class citizens.”

Afghan girls study during a lesson at a school in Herat province on October 17, 2017.

Last December, the halls of Herat Hospital were lined with patients sitting on the floor, waiting for assistance. Everything is off-white: the chairs, the walls, the floors. Moans of pain echo through the hospital’s burn unit.

Khadija’s doctor, 29-year-old Hasina Ersad, visited her a few times a day for months. “I saw women like Khadija all my life,” said Ersad. “She’s the reason I wanted to become a doctor.”

Khadija said her abuse began as soon as she got married. Her father, Mohammed, was poor and sold her off. Her husband promised her that she could go to school and pursue her goal of becoming an esthetician, but by the first week of marriage she learned that would likely never happen. Her mother-in-law told her that her purpose was to raise children. After several miscarriages, she finally gave birth to her son, Mohammed. She thought the abuse would stop once he arrived, but it only got worse.

Khadija’s sister Aisha said domestic abuse is pervasive. “My husband has hit me for years,” she shrugged.

Aisha’s husband is 71 years old; she is 26. Over the years, she said she has thought about getting a divorce, but she knows the reality: she’d lose custody of her three children and likely never marry again. In cases of divorce, women have custody of their children up until the age of 7, then children are given to their fathers.

“We weren’t lucky girls,” Aisha said as Khadija struggles to nod in agreement. “Actually, no girl in Afghanistan is lucky.”

Khadija’s psychologist Naema Nikaed, one of the few in Afghanistan who counsel suicide survivors, said she and her colleagues have witnessed an uptick in suicides among women over the past few years.

“If the government doesn’t start prioritizing the lives of women, then we will be in a forever war here in Afghanistan,” she said. Earlier that day, Nikaed had visited a 15-year-old patient who overdosed that morning on unidentified tablets from a pharmacy.

“It’s really only up to us – the women like Jameela, myself and others – to fight this discrimination and to save lives. No one can save us but ourselves.”

Nadia, 22, an Afghan woman who is trying to get divorced from her husband, sits with her father during an interview with an AFP journalist at her lawyer's office in Jalalabad on Jan. 16, 2017. When Nadia's heroin addict husband began assaulting her with a metal rod, she did something unthinkable for many women in Afghanistan -- she left him. Domestic abuse is endemic in Afghanistan, but a growing number of Afghan women are embracing divorce as a new kind of empowerment.

When Khadija was three, her mother died from childbirth complications, leaving their father Mohammed to raise Khadija and her four siblings. (Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.)

“I always wanted to give my daughters a better life, but how could I?” Mohammed asks as he waits on a bustling street corner to find daily labor. It’s a cold December morning and he and other men warm their hands over a makeshift fire. He’s only 50 years old, but his face prematurely droops from years of depression and destitution.

Both of Mohammed’s parents died when he was one; he said he grew up with an abusive uncle who stole his land. “War has affected this whole country,” he said. “It’s all we know and it has made us broken and blind.”

When Khadija was 15, he began shopping around for dowries. The highest bid came from a working-class family in Herat with a “good enough” reputation. Mohammed received $3,400 for Khadija.

Mohammed said he understands that his daughter is unhappy, but that she has no choice. Even if her husband is abusive, he is resolute about what his daughter should do: she must stay with him. “I can’t take care of her. I wish I could, but she’s better off with them,” he said. “Trust me, she’s better off.”

To get to Khadija’s and her parents-in-law’s home, you pass through a maze of trash-strewn streets and small corner shops selling nothing more than soda and chips. On the corner, there’s a tiny pre-school filled with little boys in blue shirts next to a beauty store where sometimes Khadija would work – her only reprieve from home life. In the family’s small living room, Khadija’s in-laws told me their son “never touched” Khadija and that because of her, they had lost their reputation. When their son called them from prison, where he was granted one call a day, he told me he was an innocent man.

Naseri’s close friend, Hassina Nikzad, the director of Afghan Women’s Network, visited Khadija weekly and reminded her that she could file for a divorce. “But where will I go? Mom is dead and dad is old,” she cried to her sister, Aisha.

Nikzad suggested that she could move to a shelter and learn a trade like tailoring. Khadija shook her head and looked down.

Last December, Nikzad told me she wasn’t sure Khadija would go through with the divorce. “It’s often easier to stay with the pain. Starting a new life in Afghanistan seems impossible,” she said. “We’re not given any chances, let alone a second chance.”

Afghan women work the soil at a park in the city of Herat on June 2, 2018. According to the World Bank, 19 percent of Afghan women had official jobs in 2017.

Last June when Khadija left the hospital, she wearily told Naseri that she had made up her mind. Although Naseri suggested she move to a shelter, Khadija decided to return to her husband’s parents. The pain of not seeing her son was too much to bear and raising a child in a shelter seemed too daunting.

But after a month of living with her parents-in-law, Khadija called Naseri in the middle of the night, crying. Her parents-in-law had refused to let her touch her son, Khadija said. And her husband kept saying that he planned to “punish” her when he was released from prison.

Because there was no adequate shelter space in Herat, Khadija decided to stay in her father’s one-room apartment. But her step-mother made it clear that Khadija wasn’t welcome there.

“I don’t regret doing what I did, but I’m still in chains,” Khadija told me in November over Skype. She hadn’t seen her son in months. “One day, I will try to explain to my son why I did this. I hope he understands.” Naseri held her as she sobbed.

In late November, Khadija’s husband was released from prison. Soon after, Naseri tried to contact Khadija but couldn’t reach her. Her phone has been turned off since. Naseri suspects Khadija fled across the border to Iran. It’s unlikely she will see her son again—at least not for a while.

To Naseri, Khadija is one of far too many invisible victims in the country’s war against women. “I could have been Khadija,” Naseri said. “Who knows what separates us? Nothing does.”

Reporting for this story was made possible with a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation and support from The GroundTruth Project.