LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fatima’s Taliban husband was so controlling that he refused to allow her to bathe and threatened to burn her face if she dared wear make up, suspicious that his 12-year-old Afghan wife was trying to make herself attractive to other men.
He would not let her step outside their home in Afghanistan’s western Farah Province, even when she fell sick, and beat her for burning her hand baking bread, complaining that her mother had taught her nothing to justify the dowry he paid.
“My father sold me to a man at a time when I didn’t know anything about the responsibilities of marriage,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from the capital, Kabul, where she and her young daughter are hiding.
“He became my lawful husband and began to rape me and beat me every single day for not consenting (to sex),” said the 18-year-old, who would not give her full name.
Child and forced marriage are outlawed but remain common in Afghanistan, particularly among poor families eager for dowries.
Half of all girls are married by the age of 15.
Among the most invisible victims are the wives of Islamist Taliban hardliners who, when in power, barred women from education and most work and ordered them to wear burqas outside the home, before being overthrown in 2001 by U.S.-led forces.
“Being family members of the most dangerous and ruthless fighters who have plenty of enemies among the people makes it difficult for these women,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliamentarian and women’s rights campaigner.
“They are treated as sex slaves and left completely helpless.”
When their militant husbands die, life often gets worse for young Taliban brides. Their families are too scared to take them in, society treats them as pariahs and they risk further violent abuse as unprotected single women.
About a year into their marriage, Fatima’s 25-year-old husband - she calls him a “veteran criminal” with stockpiles of ammunition in their home - blew up a police officer and was jailed for 18 years.
He was released in late 2016, after serving just four years - a common phenomenon in Afghanistan, where the Taliban often hold influence over the government.
But he never came home.
His brothers told Fatima they believed he had sacrificed himself in a suicide attack and become a martyr.
A Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid estimates that several hundred women become Taliban widows each year.
“My brother-in-law was planning to force me to marry him and sell my four-year-old daughter to a Taliban commander,” she said, referring to the dowry that would be paid for her child.
“This evil plan agonized me and at the same time emboldened me to run away, regardless of the consequences.”
Under the pretext of attending a village wedding with her mother-in-law, Fatima ran away with her child.
Her father would not take her in, but her cousins helped her get to Kabul.
“Every one of my in-laws is a Taliban member and they vowed to slay my whole family to bring justice,” she said.
To the Taliban, justice means killing Fatima and her family for the shame she brought by running away from home.
Zari, another Taliban widow, who was forcibly married at the age of 14, was not so lucky.
Three years after her husband died in a suicide attack, she remains trapped in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, tormented by his cousins who rape her repeatedly and are raising her sons, aged nine and 11, to become jihadis.
The men, who are members of the Taliban, come to the house where she lives with her elderly mother-in-law a couple of times a week to rape her, threatening to kill her if she tells anyone.
“I urge the government to rescue me and my sons as their future is in grave danger,” the 26-year-old, who declined to give her real name, said in a phone interview.
“They plan to send both of my sons to Pakistan to participate in jihad.... They take my elder son for religious indoctrination and training to become a militant like his father.”
Neither the government nor rights groups can access Taliban widows living with their in-laws in remote, rebel-controlled territory. Conflict makes it impossible for them to provide for themselves, forcing them to live with their in laws.
Neither boy goes to school because Zari cannot afford books or uniform with the money she earns weaving or from her cows.
“I want to escape with my sons, but my family is not ready to accept me and jeopardize themselves,” she said, adding that her family did not know they were marrying her into the Taliban.
Afghanistan has about 5 million widows, said a spokeswoman for the women’s affairs ministry, Kobra Rezai. It can only afford to provide about 100,000 of them with about $100 a month in financial support and skills training, she said.
None are Taliban widows.
The government does not want to be seen to be supporting them, Rezai said, a position condemned by Barakzai, the parliamentarian.
“Circumstances push (Taliban widows) into a precarious position and compel them to continue their lives as sex slaves in the hands of Taliban,” she said.
“Even their children have no way out of this vicious trap.”
Reporting by Bahaar Joya. Editing by Katy Migiro and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org