Op-Ed

What's the most dangerous country in the world to be female? I know firsthand

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — I was born in Kabul, raised in Pakistan and returned home after the fall of the Taliban to work in what is now the most dangerous country in the world to be female.

My parents' generation had much more freedom than I and the other girls in my family did, and the downward trend continues. Young girls today are even more limited in their choices than I was. In Afghanistan, 60% of us are forcibly married by age 16. Only 15% of our girls are educated, and fatwas have been issued in some regions banning girls from going to school at all. Women and girls are punished for any “immoral act” that “brings shame” to the family, including elopement or perceived sexual misconduct. Acid attacks, stoning, rape and murder are all deemed acceptable punishments when a man’s “honor” has been threatened.

Invasions by Russia and the United States, alongside the ever-present threat of the Taliban and other groups, has meant that Afghan girls and women are in danger both inside and outside our homes. And the situation is only getting worse. Women who try to change the system by entering politics are particularly at risk of being targeted with violence. There is almost nowhere safe for us to go, and when we try to make things better, we put our lives at risk.

Since unlike so many others I’ve had the benefit of an education, I’ve put my privilege to use by working for an Afghan women’s group that runs an emergency women’s shelter in Kabul. We provide a refuge for women and girls fleeing sexual or domestic violence.

Zarmina is one of the many girls who have sought our assistance. Now 14, she was only 2 years old when her mother sold her off to a 22-year-old Taliban member. Four years ago, he forced her to move in with him. Between then and last September, when she came to the shelter, Zarmina was given food only once a day and was raped on a regular basis. When we met her, she was ill and deeply traumatized.

We helped her get urgent medical treatment and support in the shelter. She soon went back to school, but with nobody else to support her, Zarmina is dependent on us. If she returns to her village, the Taliban will stone her to death.

Another girl, Mah Jabin, was 10 years old when she was handed over to a man who beat and raped her over the course of three years. In despair, she poured a gallon of gasoline over herself and lit a match. Her mother found her just in time and put the flames out. She spent a month in the hospital with life-threatening burns and lived with us for a year under continuous medical treatment. We helped her get a divorce and a warrant was issued for her husband’s arrest. She is now also back at school.

These are just two of the roughly 200 cases that we take on every single year.

Every instance of injustice and violence is shocking, but the world is now more likely to see atrocities as part of a seemingly never-ending war — the longest in U.S. history — which was supposed to “liberate” women but did no such thing. War can’t liberate us, but our lack of liberation can certainly lead to war.

There’s a direct link between the civil unrest we have dealt with in Afghanistan for several decades and what happens inside Afghan homes. As Valerie Hudson writes in “Sex and World Peace,” the greatest predictor of whether a nation goes to war is the level of violence against women in that country. We need a new, wholistic approach to peace, one which meaningfully includes women in government positions and in active decision-making on the country’s future — and one which acknowledges the connection between violence inside and outside of the home.

Until that happens, I’ll need to keep the shelter running.

Najia Karimi is executive director of the Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, a partner of the global women’s group Donor Direct Action.

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