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A photojournalist's perspective: Life inside a women's prison in Afghanistan

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Afghan female prisoners spend time inside the courtyard of the women's prison on October 22, 2010 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Sakina (L) , 4, and Khujesta,5, play inside the women's prison where they live with their mothers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Shawal Jamila,19, smokes a cigarette inside the women's prison in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Accused of bad behavior, she ran away from home with her boyfriend and has been in prison for five-months.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Zuhra holds her son Sahil, five-months-old, inside her room at the women's prison in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. Zuhra has been accused of killing her husband and unless lawyers can reverse the sentence she will have to serve at least five years.

Paula Bronstein, a senior staff photographer for Getty Images based in Bangkok, has traveled to Afghanistan every year since 2001. I asked her to comment on a photo essay she recently did on an Afghan women's prison in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Here's what she told me:

I rarely choose to embed with the military, preferring to focus on the daily life of Afghans. I wanted to visit women’s prisons where the stories highlight the problems that women face in a country where basic human rights and the rule of law don’t work in their favor. Often the courts defer to Islamic Sharia law, which has wide variety of interpretations, rather than following the laws in the books. In October, I wanted to follow up on the state of women and the legal system so I chose to visit a women’s prison that I hadn’t been to before in Mazar-e-Sharif, a smaller city where gaining access was more manageable. Many of the incarcerated females are being held for moral crimes, some even for bad behavior. These crimes include such offenses as running away from home, refusing to marry, marriage without proper family consent and attempted adultery. In the worst cases, women are detained for many years. Children are allowed to live with their mothers at the prison up to a certain age, residing in small dormitory rooms. Upon their release, many of the women have no home to go to and end up at a woman’s shelter until a more permanent solution is found.

I was impressed by these women -- they were brave. Just the act of smoking cigarettes was a surprise to me because you rarely ever see women smoke here.  I brought small gifts of shampoo, soap, washing powder and toys for the children. The women were delighted to have a strange guest even though we had to speak through a translator.  I took as many pictures as I could because I wasn't sure when they were going to usher me away. Though I only spent a few hours at a time in my three visits, I sensed their loss of hope and a sadness. I tried to imagine running away from home, then being jailed just because of a boyfriend or an unhappy marriage. The women have no real freedom, even when not imprisoned. I hope by telling their story I can help them in some way.