KABUL—Through the doors of Afghanistan's first and only counseling center, families come to sort through the emotions that accompany decades of war and hardship. Along with the loss and grieving, of course, there are concerns that life in Kabul isn't getting any better—and may be getting worse.
Unemployment is rampant, and food prices are on the rise. Watermelon, a beloved summertime snack, has become too pricey for many Afghans. Families struggle to be able to buy a 40-pound bag of wheat for $40. That cost is equivalent to two thirds of an average monthly salary—for someone lucky enough, that is, to have a job.
After 30 years of war, post-traumatic stress here is widespread. Food insecurity, in particular, takes a heavy psychological toll, says counseling center director Manizha Naderi. One comprehensive study in Kabul found that going hungry is what families report to be one of the most traumatic experiences they suffer during times of war.
The counselors here see a connection between this stress and cases of domestic violence. Until the center opened in March 2007, there were no programs for victims of domestic violence. The center is run by a nonprofit called Women for Afghan Women, although its name belies the importance that counselors place on reaching out to men as well. In the United States, domestic violence shelters tend to advocate separating a husband and wife, the philosophy being, once a batterer, always a batterer. But Afghanistan, says Naderi, "is a family-oriented country, and a woman cannot realistically live by herself. So instead of separating, the best thing is to give the man counseling."
Sometimes the center's methods are decidedly unconventional, at least by American standards. After being confidentially approached by a wife, for example, mal e counselors from the center might show up at the husband's favorite hangout. "We pretend we never met his wife," says counselor Jamila Zafar. "That's how we get to the root of the problem." They might strike up a conversation with the husband, mention in passing that he seems unhappy and stressed out, and offer the location of agencies that could help him find a job. They might mention, too, the availability of guidance at the counseling center.
Recently, the staff was unpacking boxes after the center's move to a larger office on a quiet, tree-lined street. The counselors have helped some 350 families to date and are now taking an average of 40 to 50 new cases a month with the help of private donations and international foundations.
Second wives. Naderi, 32, grew up in Queens, N.Y., after her family fled Afghanistan when she was 4. Now back, she and the rest of the staff troubleshoot the sort of cases that would be unusual among American clientele, such as a second wife feeling left out when her husband takes a third wife. Or young couples who want to break off engagements arranged by their parents, because they want to marry others for love and in doing so risk ostracism or retribution. There are, too, the perennial cases of meddling in-laws. "They are important in our Afghan culture," says Khalida Silander, legal counselor at the center. "It's different than in America. We can't just say, 'Oh, ignore them.' "
The most dire cases are those of severe domestic violence, exacerbated in some instances by rising drug abuse in Afghanistan. Many times, counselors are able to speak to the husbands about the consequences of violence, including its impact on their families. This, they say, has often proved surprisingly effective. Unannounced follow-up home visits, as often as once a week, also help.
But in addition, the center provides emergency shelter when a woman's life is at risk. One such victim was beaten severely by her husband, who was said to be involved in planning suicide bombings. She has gone into hiding, and he has threatened through family members to kill her if he finds out where she is.
Meanwhile, her chances of gaining custody of their two young children are slim, although she is fighting the case in court with the help of the center's legal team. There has not yet been a single instance of a woman retaining care of her children after a divorce here. "Women who decide to leave their husbands," says Naderi, "eventually have to leave the children as well."