For more than a year, Mariam*, an Afghan psychologist, has been trying to trace Farzana* and 14 other female survivors of domestic violence, whom she was counselling before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.
After the takeover in August 2021, the organisation Mariam worked for was forced to close its offices, and many of her colleagues fled the country. But Mariam, who went into hiding and is now living in exile, continued to run a small operation discreetly, providing psychological support to vulnerable women, young people and mental health patients. “But there are 15 women who are untraceable. I have no idea where they are,” she says.
One of them is the 28-year-old Farzana, a survivor of domestic violence and a recovering addict, who was forced into drug dependency by her abusive husband of 12 years.
When Mariam first met Farzana in early 2019, she was in the process of securing a divorce, an arduous process during which she was abused, blackmailed, humiliated and lost custody of her three children. “I feel guilty about leaving the children with him but it was the only way I could escape his abuse,” Farzana told the Guardian in an interview in 2019.
“He is a horrible man. He would rape me, and if I tried to resist he beat me up. Then he started to drug me so I couldn’t fight back,” said Farzana, her hands trembling from the symptoms of withdrawal she was experiencing.
Even after the divorce, her husband broke into her house, raped her and beat her unconscious, she said.
Mariam says: “The violence only stopped after he was arrested and convicted in a murder case. She was finally able to be free of him, get her kids back and rebuild her life. She made a living teaching the Qur’an to neighbourhood kids, and during our last session she told me that she no longer needed my support.”
But a few weeks after their last session, in July 2021, Herat province fell to the Taliban, who released all prisoners from Afghan jails. “She called to tell me her husband was threatening her. He told her he had joined the Taliban and would find and punish her. She was terrified, and was in hiding with her children,” says Mariam.
In the weeks after the collapse of the Afghan government, Mariam, too, was forced to switch off her phone due to the threats from criminals who had been set free, many associated with the Taliban. They blamed her for protecting and supporting victims of their violence, leading to their incarceration. “[When I turned my phone on again and tried to contact] patients who called me in that period seeking help, I couldn’t reach them because their phones had been disconnected,” she adds.
Today, Mariam has no idea where Farzana and the 14 other women are.
She and her colleagues are not alone. According to a report by Amnesty International, several organisations providing psychosocial support and shelters to Afghan female survivors of gender-based violence were forced to shut down by the Taliban.
“There were massive social and cultural misgivings about efforts such as these, of course, since most of these projects were donor-driven, and there was little effort to get the buy-in of the Afghan society-at-large,” explains Kevin Schumacher, the deputy executive director at Women For Afghan Women (WAW), an American non-profit that provided family counselling as well as shelter support to women escaping gender-based violence.
“Once the international community left most of the work that was being done collapsed and what remained, such as ours, was shut down by the Taliban, who did not understand the dynamics of gender-based violence (GBV) in Afghanistan and the significance of these efforts to combat GBV,” he adds.
Since their takeover, the Taliban has forced WAW to close 16 shelters and 12 family-guidance centres, seizing their properties, and forcing nearly 1,000 women to return to their families or abusive partners.
WAW has tried to negotiate with the Taliban repeatedly. “We have met some of their leaders and explained to them the significance of these efforts, and that they are not western but practised by many Islamic countries around the world. However, so far, the Taliban administration – namely the ministry of vice and virtue which replaced the ministry for women’s affairs – has ignored our pleas,” he said, referring to the Taliban ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice that propagates extremist interpretations of Islam.
Opposing women’s rights has nothing to do with religious conservatism, Schumacher says. “Islam, in fact, confers and secures many basic rights for women, which are not that different from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the ones who do not see women as complete human beings are not happy to see women have any rights, even religious rights,” he adds.
Mariam attests to the worsening situation, adding that Afghans, particularly women, are facing a huge mental health crisis. “Women are banned from education, work, going to parks or restaurants or even doing exercise. They are being forced into early marriages, even in educated and progressive families. They have no access to legal protection or support, even as the situation around the country deteriorates,” she explains
Although currently in exile, Mariam has made an attempt to expand her discreet, voluntary operations, recruiting colleagues and even university students to help provide mental health support to Afghans, mainly women, through online calls. “We provide crisis intervention counselling, especially to women who are increasingly suffering from suicidal thoughts.
“There are many challenges due to limited power and internet connectivity in the country but we are trying our best to help as many as we can, including our previous clients,” she says.
Mariam has also tried very hard to locate the women she was helping, including Farzana. “I can’t reach her or her family. I heard from common acquaintances that she may have escaped the country with her kids, but I have no way of knowing her fate,” she says.
* Names have been changed to protect identities