It was a sunny morning in early December last year when 23-year-old Khadija set herself on fire. She kissed her three-month old son Mohammed goodbye and said a short prayer.
“Please God, stop this suffering,” she pleaded in the sun-soaked courtyard of her home in Herat, Afghanistan as she poured kerosene from a copper lamp over her small frame. She then struck a match. The last thing she heard were birds chirping.
The next morning, she realized her prayer had gone unanswered. Khadija, who asked TIME not to publish her last name or her family’s, woke up at Herat Hospital in Afghanistan’s only burn unit, her body blanketed in third-degree burns and bandages.
“I am not alive, but I am not dead,” Khadija told me later that week, crying and gripping the hands of her sister, Aisha. “I tried running away and I failed.” Like the majority of Afghan women, Khadija was a victim of domestic abuse. For four years, she said, her husband beat her and told her that she’s ugly and dumb – “a nobody.”
“Women never have any choices,” Khadija said last December in the hospital, as tears streamed down her face, a barely recognizable charred patchwork of fresh scars. “If I did, I wouldn’t have married him. We’re all handcuffed in this country.”
Khadija’s decision to set herself on fire prompted her husband to be arrested on charges of domestic violence, an unusual situation in a country where abuse against women is rarely criminalized. But even while he was serving his prison sentence, Khadija felt more trapped than when she tried to take her own life. Her husband’s parents, who were looking after her son, issued Khadija an ultimatum: If she would tell the police that she lied—that her husband didn’t actually abuse her—and if she returned home, then she could see her son. If she refused, she would never see him again.
In a country racked by decades of war and a dearth of resources, Khadija’s story shows how women in Afghanistan are struggling to live with dignity. It also highlights how, in the face of little governmental support and dwindling international aid, women are stepping in to help one another.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Afghanistan, the country of 35 million people where America has waged its longest war. The war was billed, in part, as “a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, a period in which women were essentially invisible in public life, barred from going to school or working. In a 2001 radio address to the nation, First Lady Laura Bush urged Americans to “join our family in working to ensure that dignity and opportunity will be secured for all the women and children of Afghanistan.” In 2004, President George W. Bush declared victory in the country.
But seventeen years and almost $2 trillion later, the country is still in turmoil as the Taliban maintains its grip on almost 60 percent of the country, the most territory it has controlled since 2001. In October, the U.N. said Afghan civilian deaths were the highest since 2014: from January to September 2018, at least 2,798 civilians were killed and more than 5,000 others injured. Gallup’s most recent survey of Afghans, conducted in July, revealed strikingly low levels of optimism: Afghans’ ratings of their own lives are lower than in any country in any previous year.
As in all war-torn societies, women suffer disproportionately. Afghanistan is still ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. Despite Afghan government and international donor efforts since 2001 to educate girls, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80 percent face forced marriage, many before the age of 16. A September watchdog report called the USAID’s $280 million Promote program – billed the largest single investment that the U.S. government has ever made to advance women’s rights globally – a flop and a waste of taxpayer’s money.
Government statistics from 2014 show that 80 percent of all suicides are committed by women, making Afghanistan one of the few places in the world where rates are higher among women. Psychologists attribute this anomaly to an endless cycle of domestic violence and poverty. The 2008 Global Rights survey found that nearly 90 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic abuse.
“It hurts me to say this, but the situation is only getting worse,” said Jameela Naseri, a 31-year-old lawyer at Medica Afghanistan, an NGO established by German-based Medica Mondiale, defending women and girls in war and crisis zones throughout the world. Naseri oversees Khadija’s case, as well as the cases of dozens of other women who are seeking refuge or divorce from allegedly abusive husbands. In the face of what she calls “a war against women,” she is leading an informal but determined coalition of female psychologists, doctors and activists in Herat who take on cases like Khadija’s.
“I meet a new Khadija almost every day,” she said, while fielding a call from an activist. Earlier that week, a man claimed his wife had died from a longstanding illness but activists suspect he murdered her. “We do the best to help these women, but sometimes we can’t. That’s hard to accept.”
Herat, a province in western Afghanistan near the border of Iran, has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the country and some of the highest rates of suicide among women. Psychologist Naema Nikaed, who was working with Khadija, said she handles several cases of attempted suicide every week. Most go unreported due to fear of tarnishing a family’s honor.
“The government wants to say they’re prioritizing women,” a female Afghan diplomat told me, speaking on condition of anonymity during the NATO Summit in Brussels in July. “But they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption, the monster of war.” Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the fourth most corrupt country in the world, noting that corruption hampers humanitarian aid from getting where it needs to go.
At the NATO summit, I asked President Ashraf Ghani why two-thirds of girls are still out of school. He largely blamed the numbers on ill-conceived, misguided Western aid efforts that fail to acknowledge the realities on the ground.
“To get to the very nitty gritty, how many girls schools at the age of puberty have a toilet? That’s fundamental,” he said. “How many girl schools are three kilometers away? The issue here is that international experts were male-centric. They talked about gender but their pamphlets were glossy and totally lacking content.”
But activists say his administration has failed to take responsibility for clear backslides in women’s rights. In 2015, 27-year-old Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob in Kabul after being falsely accused of burning the Quran. The government did little to mete out justice and ignored demands for more action to combat violence against women.
What’s more, in February 2018, Afghanistan passed into law a new criminal code that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) hailed as a milestone in the country’s criminal justice reform. However, one chapter of the code was removed before it was passed: the chapter penalizing violence against women. In June, a United Nations report took the Afghan criminal justice system to task for ignoring violence against women.
“Women’s rights were supposed to be the success story of the 2001 invasion,” Naseri said. “But the legacy of war is still killing our women.”