KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Her father is dead and her brother is just a boy. For Shabana, a radiant young woman of 17 with dark eyes and flowing hair, the absence of a strong male protector has cost her dearly.
One day last fall as she was walking home from school, Shabana was kidnapped by a young man from her neighborhood. He forced her into marriage, then beat and imprisoned her in his home over the next seven months. Her mother did not intervene.
"He knew I had no one to protect me, and he took advantage," Shabana said of her kidnapper.
But in late May, Shabana managed to escape to a women's shelter on a quiet side street in another part of Kabul, the Afghan capital. And into her life came Esther Hyneman, 70, an American who speaks virtually no Dari but has brought a New Yorker's sharp tongue and aggressive attitude to the cause of Afghan women's rights.
One day in June, Hyneman hugged Shabana and caressed her hair as the young woman struggled to describe what had befallen her. They sat in an office at Women for Afghan Women, a private agency that assists abused women in a country where they are commonly treated as chattel.
Shabana said her head still aches from the beatings, and she clutched her throat to demonstrate how her kidnapper had choked her the night before she fled to a police station, which referred her to the shelter. Twenty-six days had passed since her escape, enough time for outrage to overcome the pain and shame.
"I am not a toy. I am human," she said in a clear, strong voice. "I should not be treated like an animal."
The agency, which has three Afghan lawyers, has gone to court to seek a divorce for Shabana. On this day, she had just returned from the courtroom, where her erstwhile husband vowed to get her back, and where her mother and uncle urged her to remove the stain on her family's honor and return to him.
"I would rather die than go back," Shabana said, a hard edge creeping into her voice. "If I go back, he will kill me. I am sure of that."
If forced to return, she said, she will commit suicide, "and my blood will be on their hands."
The shelter, part of the Family Guidance Center in Kabul, is funded by private donors in the United States, European governments and nongovernmental organizations. The center and its nearby shelter opened in March 2007, followed by centers in two other Afghan cities; they have given refuge and legal help to 750 women.
Many ran from forced or arranged marriages. Some had been sold into bondage or raped before fleeing. Several were young girls sold by their fathers as future marriage partners or household slaves.
The Kabul shelter now houses 46 women and 11 girls; the youngest is 7. The youngest girl ever housed in the shelter was a 5-year-old rape victim.
Women have virtually no options in Afghan tribal culture. It would be scandalous for a woman to live alone or pursue a job on her own. They are dependent on men for food, clothing, shelter and status -- and often must give up their children when seeking divorce. Girls have to be at least 16 to get married, but the law is widely ignored. Most women who reach the shelter are, like Shabana, old enough and bold enough to dare to escape; often they flee to police stations or a local human rights group.
Traditionally, police returned abused women to their husbands. But since "family response units" staffed by female officers were established in some police stations in 2006, police in Kabul have been more willing to steer women to shelters. Still, police in rural areas routinely return abused women to their husbands, rights groups say.
Women at Shabana's shelter live in a group setting, protected by armed guards and a security wall, while the agency tries to help them obtain divorces or find lodging with sympathetic relatives. In a few cases, it has found and vetted husbands for young women who have obtained divorces or annulments.
Many women stay at the shelter for months while their cases are resolved, often through mediation directed by the agency's five counselors. The agency attempts to contact husbands and other family members of abused women to persuade them to undergo mediation and counseling.
Nafisa, 14, a petite girl with downcast eyes, told of fleeing her father's home after hearing him say he intended to sell her to an elderly man. Her father had beaten her, refused to enroll her in school and forced her to work in his brick-making shop.
"I pray that this [shelter] doesn't send me back to my father because he will beat me much, much worse," Nafisa said.
Most abused Afghan women never reach shelters. Some commit suicide, occasionally by self-immolation. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has documented six such cases a month this year, a fraction of the total in a country where such tragedies are rarely reported, especially in rural areas.