Every morning Marzia Akbari, a 25-year-old psychologist from the western Afghan city of Herat, wakes up, picks up her phone and starts calling women. Most calls go unanswered. Since Herat was put in lockdown two weeks ago, Akbari’s work as one of Afghanistan’s only healthcare workers helping victims of domestic abuse has ground to a halt and many of the women she was trying to protect have disappeared.
“I’m very scared for them,” she says. “Many women in Herat may survive coronavirus but won’t survive the lockdown.”
Akbari is part of a small group of female psychologists, doctors and health workers in Herat who were the only lifeline for women facing domestic abuse in the province.
Women in Afghanistan have no reason to have any faith that police would help them
In a country where violence against women is endemic, Herat has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse and female suicides. While the UN estimates that , Akbari believes that in Herat almost every woman is being beaten or hurt in their own homes.
Before the lockdown, Akbari was working with her colleagues running a covert counselling clinic at a local hospital. Many of the women she was working with were already risking their lives by seeking help. Now this has also been lost.
“The building we used for providing mental health support was turned to an isolation centre of patients with coronavirus about a month ago,” Akbari says. “We tried to relocate to another place but the only reason women could manage to reach us before was because the counselling centre was based at the local hospital. Many of their families didn’t know these women were seeking counselling, they thought they were attending a medical appointment.”
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Globally cases of . For women in Herat, now Akbari’s clinic has closed, they have nobody to turn to for help.
“Women in have no reason to have any faith that police would help them,” says Heather Barr, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Even though domestic abuse was criminalised in 2009, it is still not considered a serious offence by many in authority in Afghanistan.
“The government has taken virtually no responsibility for assisting victims and in fact has too often intentionally worked to undermine access to these services,” says Barr.
Out of the 50 clients I was working with when we went into lockdown, I can barely make contact with 25 women now
Before the lockdown Akbari was dealing with a caseload of 50 women a week and was in constant contact with the clients she was assisting. There is only one domestic abuse shelter run by an NGO in Herat, but even before lockdown, the stigma of leaving your family and fear of losing children and revenge attacks often mean that women won’t leave their homes. She is terrified that the violence women face during quarantine will claim many of their lives.
“Out of the 50 clients I was working with when we went into lockdown, I can barely make contact with 25 women now,” she says.
The only way she can reach them is by phone, but many women don’t have their own devices and even for those who do it can be dangerous to receive calls in front of their abusers. “I called one of my clients after quarantine who is married to a very violent man. When she answered she was very nervous and had to pretend I was her sister. She was terrified,” Akbari says.
Today, Akbari has managed to finally track down Zainab, a 25-year-old survivor of domestic abuse and rape. Zainab was married to her cousin when she was 13 and endured a life of physical and sexual violence and forced addiction before she found her way to Akbari’s clinic last year.
Zainab was able to secure a divorce last year, a , but was forced to give up her three young children. Yet even though she is divorced, she is still harassed and assaulted by her ex-husband. For Zainab, the lockdown has meant living with her parents who are also abusing and threatening her. “Because of the divorce they assume she in now an immoral woman,” says Akbari. “But at least I know she is alive.”
Others are still out of reach. “There is another older woman I am very worried about. She had been forcibly married three times to abusive men and also faces violence from her brothers,” says Akbari. “It took me weeks to reach her, and when I did, she told me her condition has worsened since the lockdown. The harassment has increased and she says her phone is being monitored. She was miserable, and that was the last I spoke to her. Her phone has been switched off since then. I am so worried for her safety.”