Gathered around a tandoori oven in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Kabul, a group of Afghan women prepare naan for their lunchtime customers.
They are all survivors of domestic violence, and many will never be able to return to their families.
Mary Akrami, the founder of the shelter where they sleep and the restaurant where they work, fears that these lifelines may be lost with the departure of foreign forces, who were committed to restoring women’s rights in a war-weary Afghanistan. war.
“The international community encouraged us, supported us, funded us … now they are ignoring us,” said the 45-year-old, who is also director of the Afghan Women’s Network, an alliance of NGOs.
US and international troops have all but left Afghanistan as the Taliban take control of large swathes of the country, leaving Afghan forces in crisis.
Akrami fears for his safety and that of the women in his shelters. One site has already closed due to clashes in the provinces.
“A woman who runs away from her home has nowhere to go,” she said, adding that many girls and women are found on the streets.
“We have received cases of tortured, sexually abused, physically abused women,” she added.
After spending the 1996-2001 Taliban rule in Pakistan, Akrami returned after the Islamist group was overthrown by the US-led invasion.
With the help of a few European NGOs in 2002, she opened the first refuge in Afghanistan for women fleeing domestic violence.
More than 20,000 women have passed through Akrami’s network of more than two dozen shelters since then.
In Afghanistan, a country of 35 million people, the vast majority of women are estimated by the United Nations to have suffered physical, sexual or psychological violence, and the culture remains ruthless towards those who separate from their husbands.
In some parts of the country, women are still given as wives to settle debts or quarrels, and are subject to so-called “honor killings”.
– ‘I can be independent’ –
Since the ousting of the Taliban, who denied girls and women education and jobs, there have been hard-won gains: women are now judges, police officers and lawmakers, and schools have reopened.
The government has passed a law on the elimination of violence against women, although the provisions are not reliably enforced.
At the Kabul shelter, some women study for exams or go to work, returning at night to sleep.
Others raise their children within its walls.
For those who don’t have the option to leave, Akrami has opened the restaurant.
Hassanat, who was married as a peace offering, fled her husband when he strangled her, leaving her permanently hoarse.
The 26-year-old has found her way to the capital’s refuge and is mastering it from the kitchen.
“I learned to read and I can make kebabs for 100 people. I can be independent,” said Hassanat, who used a pseudonym to protect his identity.
At the restaurant, male customers are only welcome if they are escorted by women, overturning the conservative tradition that women must be chaperoned to leave the house.
– ‘Betrayed’ –
After spending her life in shelters, Akrami says she felt “betrayed” upon finding out that Washington made no demands on women’s rights in the historic withdrawal agreement with the Taliban the year last.
During peace talks between the warring Afghan government and the Taliban, activists made only vague commitments to protect women’s rights in accordance with Islamic values.
Meanwhile, prominent women, including media workers, judges and activists, are among more than 180 people murdered since September – murders the US and Afghan governments attribute to activists.
While some activists may have fled the country, most ordinary women have no choice but to watch the chaos unfold.
“Being a woman in Afghanistan is not easy,” Akrami said.
“I’m tired of constantly fighting and I’m about to lose everything,” she said.
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