Jamila - not her real name - was 14 when she was married to Habibullah, 31, a match arranged by her father.
Habibullah left her just three months into their marriage to go and work in Iran and has not reappeared in 10 years. Jamila now lives with her in-laws but feels cheated as she cannot get remarried and has not sought a divorce because of the social stigma attached to such a move. She feels trapped: “I have no future," she said.
[This story is also available as a radio report in the Dari language.]
In many parts of war-ravaged and underdeveloped Afghanistan, where most people are illiterate, conservative traditions and customs take precedence over Afghan law when it comes to personal and family disputes.
"Abandoned women suffer because the law is compromised by customs and traditions which go against Islamic principles and Afghanistan's civil codes," said Suraya Subhrang, the women's rights commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
Women are legally entitled to get a divorce should their husbands stay away for over four years, Qazi Mohammad Akbar, head of Faryab Province’s secondary court, told IRIN, but the stigma attached means that in practice this virtually never happens except in rare instances in the big cities.
|Abandoned women suffer because the law is compromised by customs and traditions which go against Islamic principles and Afghanistan's civil codes.|
Men have the weight of prevailing traditions on their side and, especially in rural areas, exploit these to get what they want: An Islamic tradition, according to which a man can renounce his marriage simply by uttering the word `talaq’, is still common.
"Men send in divorce papers or verbally express their will for separation over the phone to a judge and by doing so simply destroy the life of young women," Subhrang said.
In Afghanistan’s patriarchal society absent husbands also affect the children of such marriages, who are disadvantaged and stigmatised.
Officials at Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs (MoWA) say hundreds of women with absent husbands, or who have experienced domestic violence, have received legal counselling and advice. MoWA also assists women who apply for divorce. However, the women usually face resistance from their husbands or in-laws.
"The number of women who dare to file for divorce and separation is very limited, and restricted only to Kabul and a few major cities," said Fawzia Siddiqui, a member of parliament.
Photo: Parwin Arezo/IRIN
|Jamila says her husband has been living in Iran for more than 10 years|
In most areas, where tradition takes precedence over the law and where justice is thus restricted, women often take drastic action: In the last six months alone, over 250 women have committed suicide in the country, according to AIHRC.
"In the absence of their husbands, women experience violence and abuse from their in-laws. Some become desperate and see no option but self-immolation," Subhrang told IRIN.
Many Afghans believe that wedding their daughters to Afghans - often older men - who live in Western countries will ease their economic plight, but more often than not these turn out to be short-lived affairs.
"Some of these men spend a month or two with their young brides and then leave for good," Subhrang said.