Jamila was married off when she was seven years old. Subjected to brutal beatings for nine years by her husband, she approached her father-in-law for help. For this "shame," a family member shot her in the leg.
During a rare visit to her parental home, she sought a divorce. A jirga, or assembly of local elders who act as informal dispute-resolution mechanisms in the absence of a formal justice system in many parts of Afghanistan, rejected her plea and sent her back to her marital home.
Jamila, whose real name and location cannot be revealed for her own safety, was punished once again, this time by her father-in-law, who beat her, cut off one nostril, shaved her head and tied her with a rope before throwing her outside the house.
Andre Huber, the director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Afghanistan, says mistreatment and abuse of women persists because cases such as Jamila's are rarely reported.
"Violence against women exists in every continent, every country and every culture, and Afghanistan makes no exception, but the problem here in Afghanistan is that most of the cases remain unreported due to the severe restrictions women face in seeking justice," he told Al Jazeera.
"Female victims are often denied equal access to justice because traditionally they rarely register cases themselves."
Even when women do manage to report the violence, the act of reporting may itself increase the abuse against them, either from family members, as in the case of Jamila, or from officials of the criminal justice system.
A United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem) report cites documented cases of women who were killed after returning home.
"The initial violence is compounded by further violations of the victim as she approaches or comes into contact with different institutions of the State of community," the report stated.
"When the women or girls seek recourse from the government, they are further molested by the government representatives" and "most of the time women who report incidents of violence to the police end up in prison themselves".
However, Jamila's case is different in that she actually divorced her husband, who is now serving a three-year jail sentence. Documentation of the violence against her, as well as a follow-up by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, made this possible.
Social, religious norms
An earlier report by the UN's Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also found that the majority of women prisoners in Afghanistan were being held for violating social, behavioural and religious norms.
Christina Orguz, UNODC's country director, said that most of the "criminals" would have been considered and treated as victims elsewhere.
Najia Zewari, a senior national program officer at Unifem in Afghanistan, said there is a social intolerance towards women who do not belong to a family unit.
"Women are more vulnerable if they are not attached to a group, family or tribe," she said.
She added that any intervention on the issue of violence against women needs to be sustainable.
"We cannot create another monster by taking people out of the family."
The lack of representation of women in decision-making positions (only one cabinet minister is a woman and there are no vocal women in leadership positions), reinforces stereotypes that limit a woman's role to the household.
Women's rights advocates say this also engenders hostility to women who participate in civil society and public life.
Suzana Paklar, the head of Medica Mondiale, an NGO that provides support to women in war and crises zones, told Al Jazeera: "There is systematic oppression of women based on the deep-rooted belief that women have a lesser value."
A woman is perceived as an 'it' rather than a 'she,' Paklar said, adding that the problem in addressing the issue of violence against women in Afghanistan is that "we don't have real options to offer women".
"There is nothing really functional as protection," she said.
The strong shame associated with a woman leaving her home, even if as a victim of abuse, makes reintegrating into society and family nearly impossible.
If she returns home, the victim may be killed. If she does not return home, it is likely she will face more violence as a result of being an 'unattached woman'.
Currently, Afghanistan has only short-stay provisions for emergency cases, most of which do not allow women to keep their children.
Matrix of repression
A recent editorial in the government-owned Kabul Times offered a stark reminder of the widespread acceptance of violence against women in Afghanistan. The editorial, which ran four days after International Women's Day on March 8, was titled "A few reasons for violence against women."
"We always condemn men who beat their wives or sisters ... but overlook what some women do to invoke men's ire. To begin with, there are numerous obstinate, groggy, nagging, quarrelsome, stingy and arguing women in this country who disturb the peace in their families. When they get charged they go on and on till they provoke their husbands to beat them black and blue."
The apparent justification of violence against women was written by Abdul Haq, the English-language newspaper's editor-in-chief. The acting editor, S. Ghiassi, told Al Jazeera that Haq could not comment on the issue because he was ill and hospitalised.
A Unifem study, based on a primary database of violence covering 21 districts over a year-and-a-half during which 1,011 cases were registered, found that most of the cases of violence were a result of forced marriages.
The report also stated that the incidence of forced marriages is as high as 70 to 80 per cent, while 57 per cent of marriages are estimated to be before the legal age of 16.
The widespread prevalence of child marriage compelled Hamid Karzai, the nation's president, to publicly address this issue on International Women's Day, calling on religious elders to end this practice and the social custom of giving away girls as a means of settling disputes and debts.
Afghanistan also suffers one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates - one woman dies every 29 minutes during child birth - and a female literacy rate that stands at 15.8 per cent, nearly half that of men.
Campaign for change
Several groups, including the SDC, the governments of Norway and Italy, and the UN are fighting violence against women by setting up a trust fund for projects that raise legal aid awareness, provide psychosocial aid and build safe houses and shelters.
As part of the initiative, Unifem and Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs opened its second referral centre in the northern Parwan province last week. The referral centre will ensure that women seeking help from authorities are not automatically arrested pending investigation.
Reports from the first referral centre indicate that the initiative has made some gains.
"Not one of the women who went there ended up in custody," Zaweri said. The next step, Unifem and its partners said, will be the introduction of specific legislation for the elimination of violence against women.
A draft of the proposed law has been sent to the Ministry of Justice for review.
© 2008 Al Jazeera News