Since arriving in Kabul, I have attempted to maintain my jogging regimen in preparation for a 5K I plan to run shortly after I return to the U.S. Running here is an adjustment. At an elevation of over 5,000 feet, it is especially tough to run as far or as fast as I've been accustomed (on the comfort of the treadmill in my guesthouse, of course).
For many women here in Afghanistan, though, they are not just running for their health, they are running for their lives. They are running to escape domestic violence, and running is not just tough due to the altitude. In some cases, it's actually criminal; or at least, that's how it is handled by some authorities here.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) held a press conference to announce a dramatic increase in the number of women arrested for "morality crimes" in Afghanistan in the last 18 months. These are instances where, for the most part, women have run from their homes due to abuse or forced marriage. Even though fleeing home without permission is not a crime in Afghanistan, it is often treated as one, resulting in the women's arrest and imprisonment, which has risen by 50 percent in since October 2011. In fact, imprisonment of women and girls has increased almost 30 percent since that time.
So, it was timely when Women for Afghan Women started their Children's Support Center in late 2009 to provide housing for children whose mothers were sent in prison. Previously, these children would accompany their mothers to prison, where there was no schooling or other activities, and the living conditions do not support children's healthy development.
Now, these children live in comfortable dorms with a full playground and yard, fully equipped classrooms and a computer lab where they receive accelerated instruction so in order to enter public school at, and in some cases, above, their grade levels, and well-appointed dining facilities and playrooms. The staff have attended to many details to create a stimulating home for the children, including parrots and other pet birds in large cages near the playground, English-language posters on the walls, and even colorful SpongeBob SquarePants comforters.
And the 79 children living here are clearly happy and engaged. When I visited one of the classes, a group of about 12 six to eight-year-olds were having a math lesson. Amid their giggles and bashful faces, the teacher offered to have them perform a song they had been rehearsing and invited three of them to the front of the room. One of the young scholars led the trio, launching into an enthusiastic performance of a song which, I was told later, was an ode to mothers. At the chorus, all of the children sang vigorously and finished triumphantly to our applause.
These children are taught to be proud of their mothers, who are in prison for daring to escape violence perpetrated against them and for protecting their children from the same abuse. And these children should be proud. Their mothers, accused of abandoning their responsibilities to their husbands and families, have risked everything to ensure safety for themselves and their children.
But what's more tragic is that, for many of them, surviving imprisonment may not be the end of their ordeal. Once the women are released, they have few options except to return home to the families that once abused them -- and now reject them for their dishonor; or, go to a shelter where they are effectively confined until they re-marry or are claimed by other family members. Girls face the same dilemma. Unless they can safely return to their families, they are limited to the Children's Residence until they marry or "graduate" to an adult women's shelter.
In their 2012 report, "I Had To Run Away" HRW asserts (and reiterates in Tuesday's release) that the Afghan government should release women arrested for running away, decriminalize their escape to safety, and investigate the reasons for their flight through full enforcement of the country's Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women. Given that this law is still subject to debate by the country's Parliament, these actions seem idealistic, but clearly very urgently needed.
It's okay if running in Afghanistan leaves me breathless and fatigued. But running for one's life should never be a dead end.