KABUL -- Heavily pregnant at 16 after being raped by an insurgent commander, Malala was on the brink of committing suicide when she found refuge and hope in a women's shelter in Kabul.
The non-descript building, tucked away in a residential neighbourhood in the Afghan capital, is one of the few hidden sanctuaries where battered women can seek support.
Managed by the charity Women for Afghan Women (WAW), the shelter has given hope to those such as Malala in a country where rape, abuse and forced marriages are commonplace.
Malala is still tormented by her past but now wants to channel her energy to build a better future for herself, her child and others -- declaring that she wants to become a police officer in order to "defend women".
Extreme caution to protect women
Cameras monitor the entrances of the shelter discreetly, and curious onlookers are viewed with suspicion.
"Nobody comes here," said Najia Nasim, the WAW director in Afghanistan.
"Even our (male) employees do not know where the centre is," she told AFP. "This place must remain confidential."
Such extreme caution is well founded. Most of the women here are in danger of being killed by violent husbands or vengeful relatives.
Thirty shelters have been established across 13 Afghan provinces since the end of the Taliban regime in 2001, mostly by WAW with financial support from the UN and some European donors.
It is a rare but real achievement for women in a country that ranks a dismal 152nd out of 155 nations on the global Gender Inequality Index.
'Last chance and ultimate hope'
"Before the shelters, there was nothing for these runaway women," said Benafsha Efaf, the WAW director for Kabul.
"Many families have disowned the girls for shaming their (tribes), which makes them vulnerable to violence," she told AFP. "We are their last chance and their ultimate hope."
According to UN Women, 87% of Afghan women experience violence in one form or another during their lives, 62% of them multiple times.
The traditional system sanctifies male domination, and nearly four decades of conflict have exacerbated violence within Afghan households, UN Women says.
Cultural attitudes often make women, some very young, a bargaining chip to settle a debt or acquire a new wife, Efaf said.
That was the painful fate of 15-year-old Aisha, picked up by the police in a brothel at the age of six. She was sold after her mother's death by her father, who wanted to remarry.
"I was too young to face so many problems in my life," she said, swaddled in a pink shawl.
"But here everyone has a terrible past, and I often say to myself: 'Aisha, you are not alone, these women are like your mother and your sisters'."
When AFP visited the shelter, it was hosting 45 women and 18 children, most referred by other Afghan institutions.
The shelter is legally required to resettle the women, often through mediation with their families.
Often at stake is the custody of children, who are often automatically entrusted to the fathers.
Healing emotional wounds
While the cases are being settled, family ties are usually broken, and the women end up staying in the shelters for between six months and five years, a time spent on regaining confidence and healing old wounds.
Many pursue an education or a vocational training, learning to value autonomy and freedom.
Some emerge from the shelter to get a job and share an apartment with other former residents, though some are too broken to make any progress, said director and psychologist Wira Farawal.
But Malala has already regained her lost confidence. Though traumatised by her past, she learned to read and bonded more with her baby, a product of rape.
She has named her son Nazif, which in Persian means "pure".