Married at the age of seven to an 80-year-old man, then to another, Fatema endured rape, hunger and beatings until she could no longer and attempted suicide.
After yet another flight, she is now hiding in one of the rare women’s shelters that has remained open in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power in mid-August.
With tears in her eyes, the 22-year-old recounts domestic violence like this time, at the age of 10, where “my head crashed against a nail in the wall and my skull cracked”.
“I almost died of it,” she adds.
In Afghanistan, where patriarchal traditions, poverty and lack of education have hampered women’s rights for decades, 87% of them have already experienced some form of physical, sexual or psychological violence, according to the UN.
Under the former government, the country of 38 million people had just 24 shelters – almost all funded by the international community and frowned upon by part of society. Already very imperfect, this system of protection has collapsed.
If Fatema’s refuge closes, she will have nowhere to go: her father is dead, her in-laws want to kill her. In her home, twenty other survivors hide from their former torturers.
– “Start over from zero” –
On condition of anonymity, the director of an NGO told AFP that she had followed with concern the gradual takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
In the most unstable provinces, it has prepared months in advance, sending back residents who want it to their families and transferring others.
Then, in panic, around 100 women and employees had to be moved to Kabul. When the capital fell, the last returned to their families, left with friends or with the staff.
“We have to start from scratch,” laments the director, who has not yet obtained permission to reopen her shelters.
The Taliban, however, claim to have changed. In late November, movement spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Amnesty International that battered women could go to court.
Their supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, denounced forced marriages in December.
Islamist fighters have not spoken out officially on the shelters or ordered their closure, even offering their protection to some NGOs. Insufficient to reassure them: most have closed their centers.
The Taliban have paid several visits to the one hosting Fatema, leaving a mixed impression and the “uncertain future”, according to an employee. They “say it’s not a safe place for women, that they belong at home.”
Another is less worried. They “came, looked at the rooms, checked that there were no men,” she says. “It was much better than we expected”.
According to several sources, some officially closed centers continue to house women who have no point of fall.
– Threat –
Even before the Taliban took Kabul, many victims did not know where or how to receive aid, and serious failings were often blamed on state institutions.
Zakia, threatened with death by the father of the husband who beat her, remembers that the employees of the Ministry for Women, theoretically responsible for protecting her, “did not even listen to me and told me that my situation was not so bad “.
The ministry, closed by the Taliban, accused her of “lying,” said Mina, 17, who fled at 15 with her little sister, a violent uncle.
But the system remained vital. Now, many women, but also workers in shelters, “risk violence and death,” according to Amnesty International.
Several employees say they have been threatened over the phone by the Taliban looking for members of their families. An official from the former Women’s Ministry said that the Taliban tried to obtain the addresses of shelters from her.
The hour is all the more critical as the situation worsens. “When the economic situation worsens, the men are out of work, the cases of violence increase”, describes this official.
A concern shared by Alison Davidan, representative of UN Women in Afghanistan: “The situation has probably worsened (…) but services have generally declined”, she said, adding that the UN is negotiating the reopening of shelters .
This is also the mission that Mahbouba Seraj, a central figure in the fight for the rights of Afghan women, has set for himself. His refuge, which remained open, was inspected by the Taliban who “left him in a way”.
Ms. Seraj wishes to continue discussing with the Islamists, hoping “that there will be changes.”
But she is especially worried about the victims who no longer come forward: “No one is going to take care of them”.
* the name of the witnesses has been changed