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Cablegate: Still a Harsh World for Women in Western Afghanistan

VZCZCXRO4144
OO RUEHIK RUEHPW RUEHYG
DE RUEHBUL #4141/01 3520703
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 180703Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY KABUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 1937
INFO RUCNAFG/AFGHANISTAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHMFIUU/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 KABUL 004141

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR SCA/FO DAS CAMP, SCA/A, PRM
STATE PASS TO USAID FOR AID/ANE, AID/DCHA/DG
NSC FOR JWOOD
OSD FOR SHIVERS
CG CJTF-82, POLAD, JICCENT

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREF PREL PHUM AF
SUBJECT: STILL A HARSH WORLD FOR WOMEN IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN

1. (U) Summary. Despite Herat's status as the most modern Afghan
city, western Afghanistan remains deeply conservative and women are
still forced into arranged marriages, suffer beatings and abuse at
the hands of family members, and resort to self-immolation as a
means of escaping their plight and exerting the last measure of
control over their lives. Womens' non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) provide islands of sanctuary and hope, but traditional
values, lack of education, and poverty continue to severely limit
women's rights and safety. End Summary.

Full House at the Women's Shelter
---------------------------------
2. (SBU) Herat has only one safehouse/shelter, which was established
in 2003. The shelter is now run by the Voice of Women (VOW) NGO at
the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) and funded by the Danes. The shelter offers sanctuary and
tries to negotiate solutions for anywhere from 25-50 short-term and
long-term residents. The women and girls are referred to the
shelter by the police, immigration authorities, the Ministry of
Labor, the Department of Women's Affairs, UNHCR, or other assistance
organizations. So far in 2007, the shelter has assisted 151 women:
29 deportees (six remain in the shelter); 19 victims of domestic
violence (four remain); 35 runaways; 11 homeless; 19 prison release
(three remain); five voluntary returnees from Iran; 28 family
conflicts (two remain), and five internally displaced persons. The
shelter currently has 13 long-term and 12 short-term residents. The
long-term residents sometimes stay as much as 18 months while
waiting for a court to decide if they can divorce their husbands.
The short-term residents can stay as briefly as a few hours, often
just needing help in defusing a family problem or finding relatives
after being deported alone from Iran.

Death by Dishonor
-----------------
3. (U) The stories are depressingly similar. Most girls were
between the ages of 14 and 18 when their families forced them into
arranged marriages, often with elderly Afghan men living in Iran
with several wives and grown children. The girls either escaped
before the wedding and were beaten, or escaped after the wedding and
were beaten. The girls are generally from western Afghanistan and
are often Hazara; all were illiterate and from poor families. One
girl was beaten and tortured by her brother-in-law. He is now
serving time in prison, but her family would still kill her for
dishonoring them if she returned home. Another resident who
recently returned to her family was beaten to death by her father
and brother.

4. (U) The girls live in two large rental houses separated by a
broad, clean courtyard, but the gate is locked between the rear,
long-term resident house and the street-side, short-term resident
house. Children, three of whom were born in the shelter, played in
the courtyard amidst laundry and scraggly trees. The shelter has no
outward identifying sign, and residents generally keep or are kept
to themselves. A few are allowed to go to the bazaar in groups if
accompanied by a supervisor, but others are kept inside for fear
they will be kidnapped or killed as soon as they step outside.

Harshly Judging Each Other
--------------------------
5. (SBU) The girls seemed generally happy and well cared-for, but
they do not seem to trust each other. None of the girls would tell
us their stories unless all other residents and even staff had left
the room. The director said many girls came to the shelter
initially claiming they had been trafficked for prostitution, but
social pressure and criticism from the other women soon caused them
to recant and fabricate a traditional forced-marriage story. This
pressure to remain "good" may be at the heart of allegations of
sexual abuse at Pol-e-Charkhi prison made by female inmates to a
visiting Afghan parliamentary delegation in October. The inmates
denied these allegations to subsequent parliamentary and Ministry of
Justice delegations soon afterwards.

What the Future Holds: Marriage, Marriage, and Marriage
--------------------------------------------- ----------
6. (SBU) Even if the girls could wait out the mandatory three-year
period required to obtain a divorce, they must marry again for
protection. Being a single woman in Afghanistan and living outside
your family circle is simply not an option. The shelter director

KABUL 00004141 002 OF 003


contacts the families and pursues the only three possible
alternatives: 1) return to the girl's family to be married off
again; 2) return to the girl's husband; or 3) an immediate
arranged marriage to another man. The girls seemed to accept this
future, and had no other ideas of what they could or would do with
their lives if allowed to choose.

Tea Rooms and Tea Cosies
------------------------
7. (SBU) While the girls wait for their fate to be decided, they
occupy their time with educational and simple livelihood programs
(e.g., knitting). Some also worked in the shelter's Finnish
Embassy-funded tea rooms "for women, by women." The most successful
tea room is in a curtained but airy little restaurant in Herat's
central park, where female university students cram in to study and
gossip and men stand at the door to order takeout. The employees
make $80 per month (teachers make $60), and are escorted,
burqa-clad, by male shelter guards to and from work. The girls said
the students often befriend them and they enjoy this one break from
their relative isolation at the safehouse.

Self-Immolation Is Still Seen As The Only Way Out
--------------------------------------------- ----
8. (U) When they cannot escape continued violence or forced
marriage, some girls attempt suicide by self-immolation. We visited
the 36-bed Herat Burn Unit, which was created partly to cope with
the high numbers of self-immolation victims. Cases are decreasing
slightly; the hospital treated almost 150 patients each year in
2003, 2004, and 2005; 98 patients in 2006; and 62 patients so far in
the Afghan year of 1386, which ends March 31. Nevertheless, the
women's ward was full, and women and girls between the ages of 12
and 30 lay in various ghastly stages of treatment and recovery.
Some were disabled along with being disfigured, and doctors feared
they would attempt suicide again. Family arguments, desperation,
and extreme mental distress were present in all the cases. One
twelve-year old girl was horrifically burned from the waist down and
claimed her skirt caught fire in the kitchen but the U.S. Air Force
medic accompanying us said the severity of her wounds was
inconsistent with her story.

9. (U) While the women were receiving the best burn treatment
available in Afghanistan, the unit still lacked basic pressure
garments, clean bandages, and enough supplies. Only seven
well-trained professionals worked at the burn unit, including two
plastic surgeons. While the USAF medic noted the high quality of
the skin graft work, we could not watch, or listen, as an unskilled
nurse roughly stripped off the caked-on bandages of the twelve-year
old instead of soaking them first. According to the doctors,
Americans built the building, the French supplied it and trained the
doctors, and the Afghan government funds the salaries. But the
doctor said the government salaries were only $50 per month, and
money even for that was running out. He feared the unit would close
in less than a year without a substantial new funding source.

U.S. Military Often Provides The Only Medical Care Available to
Women
--------------------------------------------- -----
10. (SBU) U.S. military medical personnel at Camp Stone, a Forward
Operating Base near the Herat Airport often offer the only medical
treatment available to women in the area. Their "medcap" (Medical
Community Assistance Program) missions often see evidence of sexual
abuse, self-immolation, and physical abuse such as blown eardrums
and skull deformities from victims being hit repeatedly in the head.
Kuchi women - often married at 14 and seen as mere reproducers and
workers - suffer the most severe abuse. The medical personnel said
most village elders show more appreciation for the veterinary
clinics than the medcap missions. Only American units conduct
medcaps; the Italian and Spanish units in the area focus on other
assistance goals, and medical NGOs like Doctors Without Borders have
pulled out of Herat due to security concerns.

Women's Council: A Hope for the Future
--------------------------------------
11. (SBU) The Herat Women's Council is one Afghan-run women's NGO
dedicated to raising awareness about self-immolation and women's
rights in general. The Council was formed by 200 former female
principals and intellectuals shortly after the Taliban's fall. At
that time, self-immolation cases were extremely high, and the

KABUL 00004141 003 OF 003


Council produced a magazine and public service television programs
about the rights of women and the danger and senselessness of
self-immolation. The director noted that self-immolation did not
exist in Afghanistan before the wars, but was brought from Iran when
refugees began returning. The Council is supported entirely by
donations and what they earn from their livelihood classes. Local
contacts said some friction existed between the Council and the
Department of Women's Affairs (DWA). The Council's director
declined to comment on this, but she did suggest the DWA could do
more to protect women. We tried to meet with the DWA but were stood
up twice.

Iranian Women are the Vanguard?
-------------------------------
11. (SBU) Interestingly, two of the women at the leading edge of
women's rights were either Iranian or Iranian-educated. One Iranian
woman, now a British citizen and married to a Frenchman, runs the
international five-star hotel in Herat, aptly named, "The
International Five-Star Hotel." Arriving in the dining room without
a headscarf, she said she has been harassed, threatened, and
discriminated against both because she is a woman and because she is
a foreigner. She says she refuses to be intimidated and will
continue to build her hotel's business in the face of the local
Chamber of Commerce's open hostility. (We also heard rumors that
the hotel was Iranian-government run and stocked with Iranian secret
agents.) The young woman who headed the Women's Council was
Iranian-educated, and seemed to be an independent thinker and not
easily intimidated. Her conviction and straight-forward approach
were refreshing, and she is a bright spark amidst so much misery and
oppression.

12. (SBU) As Herat and western Afghanistan continue to develop,
women will face an increasing clash of cultures. Internet cafes,
opulent new houses, satellite television and, lest we forget, the
International Five-Star Hotel, are all impacting Herat's
conservative community. Whether the region becomes a beacon of
progress or a place of continued oppression remains to be seen, but
women's rights face a long uphill battle in either case.

WOOD

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