KABUL, Afghanistan — Mariam was 11 in 2003 when her parents forced her to marry a blind, 41-year-old cleric. The bride price of $1,200 helped Mariam’s father, a drug addict, pay off a debt.
Mariam was taken to live with her new husband and his mother, who, she says, treated her like a servant. They began to beat her when she failed to conceive a child. After two years of abuse, she fled and sought help at a police station in Kabul.
Until only a few years ago, the Afghan police would probably have rewarded Mariam for her courage by throwing her in jail — traditional mores forbid women to be alone on the street — or returning her to her husband.
Instead, the police delivered her to a plain, two-story building in a residential neighborhood: a women’s shelter, something that was unknown here before 2003.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a more egalitarian notion of women’s rights has begun to take hold, founded in the country’s new Constitution and promoted by the newly created Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a small community of women’s advocates.
The problems they are confronting are deeply ingrained in a culture that has been mainly governed by tribal law. But they are changing the lives of young women like Mariam, now 17. Still wary of social stigma, she did not want her full name used.
“Simply put, this is a patriarchal society,” said Manizha Naderi, director of Women for Afghan Women, one of four organizations that run shelters in Afghanistan. “Women are the property of men. This is tradition.”
Women’s shelters have been criticized as a foreign intrusion in Afghan society, where familial and community problems have traditionally been resolved through the mediation of tribal leaders and councils. But women’s advocates insist that those outcomes almost always favor the men.
Forced marriages involving girls have been part of the social compacts between tribes and families for centuries, and they continue, though the legal marrying age is now 16 for women and 18 for men. Beating, torture and trafficking of women remain common and are broadly accepted, women’s advocates say.
Until the advent of the shelters, a woman in an abusive marriage usually had nowhere to turn. If she tried to seek refuge with her own family, her brothers or father might return her to her husband, to protect the family’s honor. Women who eloped might be cast out of the family altogether.
Many women resort to suicide, some by self-immolation, to escape their misery, according to Afghan and international human rights advocates.
“There is a culture of silence,” said Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, which opened the first women’s shelter in Afghanistan six years ago. The majority of abuse victims, she said, are too ashamed to report their problems.
As recently as 2005, some Afghan social organizations did not publicly acknowledge that they were working in support of women’s rights, said Nabila Wafez, project manager in Afghanistan for the women’s rights division of Medica Mondiale, a German nongovernmental organization that supports women and children in conflict zones.
“Women’s rights was a very new word for them,” Ms. Wafez said. “But now we’re openly saying it.”
Women’s advocates insist that they are trying not to split up families, but rather to keep them together through intervention, mediation and counseling.
“Our aim is not to put women in the shelter if it’s not necessary,” said Ms. Naderi, who was born in Afghanistan but grew up in New York City and graduated from Hunter College. “Only in cases where it’s dangerous for the women to go back home, that’s when we put them in the shelter.”
If mediation fails, Ms. Naderi said, her organization’s lawyers will pursue a divorce on behalf of their clients. Cases involving criminal allegations are referred to the attorney general’s office.
Ms. Naderi’s organization has even taken the bold step of helping several clients find new husbands, carefully vetted by the shelter’s staff. The men could not afford the customary bride price, making them more accommodating of women who deviated from tradition.
When Mariam arrived at the Women for Afghan Women shelter in 2007, the group’s lawyers took her case to family court. Her husband pleaded for her return, promising not to beat her again. Mariam consented. In a recent interview, Mariam, a waifish teenager with a meek voice, said she had feared that “no one would marry me again.”
But soon after her return, the beatings resumed, she said. She fled again.
Mariam’s case was moved to criminal court because she said her husband had threatened to kill her, said Mariam Ahadi, the legal supervisor for Women for Afghan Women and a former federal prosecutor in Afghanistan.
At the shelters, others told still more harrowing tales. For the same reason as Mariam, none wanted their full names used.
Nadia, 17, who has been living in Ms. Akrami’s long-term shelter since 2007, recounted that to avenge a dispute he had with her father, her husband cut off her nose and an ear while she was sleeping. She has undergone six operations and needs more, Ms. Akrami said.
“I don’t know anything about happiness,” Nadia said.
At 8, another girl, Gulsum, was kidnapped by her father, who was estranged from her mother. She says she was forced to marry the son of her father’s lover. Her husband and her new mother-in-law beat her and threatened to kill her, she said.
Now 13, Gulsum said that before eventually escaping, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing medicine and rodent poison.
Advocates say governmental response to the issue has significantly improved since the overthrow of the Taliban. Judges are ruling more equitably, advocates say, and the national police have created a special unit to focus on family issues. But women’s advocates say that even so, protections for women remain mostly theoretical in much of the country, particularly in rural areas, where tradition runs deepest and women have limited access to advocacy services and courts.
Mariam said she felt fortunate to have found refuge. Asked what she hoped for the future, she replied, “I want my divorce, and then I want to study.” She was pulled out of school in the fourth grade. Turning to Ms. Ahadi, she added, “I want to be a lawyer like her.”
But for all of Mariam’s suffering, her family apparently has not changed. Her younger sister was married off a year ago, at age 9, in exchange for a $400 bride price that helped cover another drug debt, Mariam said, and her youngest sister, who is 6, appears to be heading toward a similar fate.