The young woman's corpse was found in a bag in the Helmand river. But the murder inquiry was hampered by a simple fact - no one recognised her face.

She was just one of Afghanistan's invisible females, imprisoned in their homes and hidden behind the burqa. Her birth was never recorded, she never owned an identity card and her death was equally anonymous.

The toll of civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan is well known. Yet 10 times the number of women killed by war set fire to themselves every year - 2400, according to the United Nations. It is a reflection of their increasing anguish, despite being promised a better life a decade ago. Across Afghanistan, progress has been made. More girls are going to school, there are women in Parliament, there is a Ministry of Women's Affairs and a law forbidding violence against them. But for the females of Helmand - the British area of operations - that brave new world has yet to filter down.

"The capital is a completely different place for a woman compared to provinces like Helmand," said Samira Hamidi, director of the Afghan Women's Network. "In a conservative province like Helmand, they are expected to stay at home. The impact of the insecurity makes an Afghan woman a paralysed person."

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Young girls are still sold off to pay debt. Many are forced into marriage as young as 12. One in 11 women do not survive childbirth. Illiterate and unable to earn a living, they are reliant on their families.

Captain Tabita Hansen, a Danish army officer, said a widow turned up at the base with her eight children, having been turfed out of her home by the police. They had compensated her with a bag of wheat.

As part of a military Female Engagement Team, Hansen has been the author of one of the micro-finance projects springing up across Helmand, attempting to give women some independence. They have started sewing small cloth dolls for income.

At the Department of Women's Affairs in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, Saleha - a wizened, pixie-like creature - drew a wrinkled finger across her throat as she said: "If we get out from our home, the Taleban will kill us."

Her fellow village widows sit barefoot, enveloped in black, barely a mouthful of teeth between them. They have been provided a lifeline by Mercy Corps, one of the few NGOs to brave Helmand's battle zone: chickens and lambs, for eggs or meat to sell at the bazaar.

David Haines, Mercy Corps programme manager in Afghanistan, said: "Opportunities and the level of education amongst women in particular in Helmand are abysmally low, but the thirst for learning is certainly there.

"When we opened registration for one of our vocational training courses for women earlier this year we had more than 3000 applications within 48 hours."

There are signs of progress: there are new female lawyers and teachers and attempts are being made to provide healthcare.

Out of the 6384 police trained in Helmand, 13 are women, used largely for domestic violence cases.

Leon Tomlin, Provincial Reconstruction Team deputy head of mission in Helmand, insisted: "Women's issues are an important issue on the agenda, but it takes a long time to address. Addressing it in one of the most conservative provinces is particularly difficult."

In the words of one British adviser: "We are at the bottom of the mountain looking up."

- INDEPENDENT