Divorce rates are on the rise in Afghanistan, but there are still so many women and children forced to endure a life of violence to avoid the shame of a failed marriage.

A report published by BBC Pashto has found that filings for divorce in Afghanistan have risen by 25 percent in the past two years.  

Family lawyer and Vice President of the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association Najla Raheel said: "[I see] the increase in divorce cases as an indication that women are more and more aware of their rights, and after years of advocating to end violence against women, finally the women are coming out to break the shackles." 

However, she cautioned that the situation in rural areas remains much the same.

The recent assassination of the female journalist Mena Mangal indicates the difficult situation women continue to face in Afghanistan. A video clip circulating on social media features Mangal's mother demanding justice also naming the alleged culprit. Mangal's crime?  She chose to divorce her husband, whom she had been forced to marry — a costly decision which resulted in her losing her life.

Between March 2017 and March 2018, at least 270 women lost their lives due to domestic violence and honour killings in Afghanistan, as documented by the Independent Human Rights Commission.

Many women prefer to stay with their abusive husband and in-laws rather than filing for divorce, which in most cases culminates in continuous and often violent arguments.

Couples forced to stay together in such toxic and dysfunctional domestic environments have a significant impact on women and children. Women would not dare to file for divorce, and if they did in some cases, their fate would be the same as Mena's.

Divorce applications by women are only to be approved if the women are: abused (based on evidence provided to court), if a husband has been absent for more than three years, due to a husband's non-curable illness and the husband's inability to provide a meaningful livelihood to his family, said Najla Raheel.

Many families are still not willing to approach the courts to file for separation. Usually, the divorce filed is not an easy process; taking into consideration the legal procedures and the cultural and economic aspect of the family, which makes it very challenging and hard to approach.

Raheel added: "[According to] the applicable laws it should take around five months, but in practice, the average time for a divorce file to be completed is between one-and-a-half years to two-and-a-half years." Only if the applicant and their lawyer persistently follow the case in court will they hope to see a resolution. In most cases, however, the applicant is threatened to drop the case.

Violence in the family

There are so many triggers which ignite violence in the family: illiteracy, a lack of understanding of their fundamental rights, and a lack of economic opportunities, especially for women, which can lead to abuse. 

Abdul Razaq Qazizada a practising lawyer and a social activist based in Kabul, said: "Local customs and lack of access to courts and justice system for women exacerbate the dire relationship between the partners in most parts of Afghanistan. As the couple have to live together to avoid stigmatisation in society."

He added: "There are numerous cases when a woman approaches to report an abuse case in the judicial and police institutions and the woman becomes the victim of the same system that is supposed to protect them."

Raheel said: "There are also other deep-rooted social causes for violence against women such as forced marriages, child marriage, and Baad."

"Although Baad [a pre-Islamic method of settling disputes] is prohibited under the laws of Afghanistan it is still widely practised in rural areas, where the family of a convicted person has to settle a dispute by providing a female from the family as servant or bride to the victim's family," explained Qazizada.

The age of the female is of no relevance in such cases; she could be an infant.

The Divorce Stigma

Qazizada said: "Marriages are supposed to be lifelong bonds in Afghanistan even if it is abusive and violent."

In some case, the girl's family does not accept her back referring to a local saying "we send our girls in a wedding gown and take her back in a coffin".

Dozens of women in Afghanistan kill themselves each year to escape failed, and often violent, marriages and many more are killed in honour killings.

Divorce is considered a stigma and immoral in Afghan society. It is considered to bring dishonour to the entire family.

Hameed, a victim of family violence, said: "Every time my parents had an argument, elders of the family would come and settle the dispute between them, it went on for years, my brother killed himself, yet nothing changed."

One day Hameed came home after his brother's burial to find his parents shouting and arguing. He lost his cool and hit himself with a shovel, and his parents found him in a pool of blood. Since then, they have lived separately, yet they have never divorced.

Children under the shadow of violence in the family

Children are paying the most substantial price in post-conflict Afghanistan; they are killed by both sides involved in the ongoing counter-terrorism fight.

One would think family is the safest place to raise a child, but in families where violence and arguments between parents are mundane activities, children suffer the most, with some going as far as committing suicide. There are many like Sahar and Abdul, who could not live with constant arguments in the family and chose to sleep eternally to avoid hearing their parents' daily arguments.

Cases like Abdul, 18, who immolated himself on his wedding day and Sahar (name changed to protect the family), 16, who killed herself with a pistol, are the heart-wrenching realities of family violence.

A close friend of Sahar's family, who chose to remain anonymous, said Sahar had killed herself due to the violent behaviour of her parents.

Her parents were engaged in childhood and had to accept the engagement when they reached adulthood. The parents could not divorce each other because they are paternal cousins, and it would be a dishonour to the entire family. The well-educated couple, who are both employed, are still tied by local customs and familial bonds not to leave each other, yet the children are paying the most substantial price.

Sahar took the pistol and killed herself when everyone was sleeping after a night of fierce arguments between the parents. 

A similar case was that of young Laila (whose name has also been changed), who took rat poison to end her life.

A neighbour, who was also her classmate at university and did not want to be named to protect the family's privacy, said: “We both came together after finishing our classes, and everything was fine that day, but later in the evening I heard her yelling to her mom in desperation for help that she ate rat poison."

She lost her life on the way to the hospital. She added that her father had affairs, and it had made their life an unbearable hell, she was always complaining about her parents' daily arguments and was looking for a way out.

She further added: "I didn't know she would pay such a huge price, but I hope she is happy and peaceful now."

Usually, the suicide of a child is hidden and framed as an accident to rid the family of blame and protect its honour.

Hameed is one of those who had his childhood cut short as a result of his parents’ regular arguments over ordinary things. He recalls his memory of being a happy family, which was shattered by an explosion inside their house during the civil war in Afghanistan, leaving his mother with amputated limbs and a brother dead.

His family was forced to take refuge in Pakistan and living as refugees sparked a wave of arguments and violence between his parents. 

Young Hameed, despite living under the shadow of violence within the family, together with his older and younger brother, aged 7, had to work as a street vendor selling bags.

Hameed is now 30 and a father of 10 children, living with the dire consequences of family violence. At the age of 13, he was forced into marrying his elder brother Abdul’s widow. Abdul could not bear the burden of mundane quarrels between his parents when they started arguing during his wedding and set himself on fire.

The guests invited to great the groom, left in horror and shock. They had to come back to bury his dead body a week later after he succumbed to severe burns he had inflicted upon himself.