Afghan Women’s Shelters At Risk

A draft resolution of the Afghan government threatens the safety and rights of women seeking refuge in the country’s shelters, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said this month.

The main provision would allow the government to take control of Women’s Protection Centers, nearly all of which are currently operated by non-governmental organizations or the United Nations. While HRW urged the government to simply support the shelters rather than control them, it warned that government control would mean dire results for the country’s women.

Culture of Control

Violence against women and girls in Afghanistan is rampant, HRW says, and includes sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape. Forced and child marriage also remain socially accepted. While drastic shifts in the social undertones and a need for education may be the answers to thwart these social ills, there remains a need to keep these women safe until that day comes. But that may take years or even decades.

Courtesy of The New York Times: Miriam, 12, who left home because her stepmother was beating her, prayed at a shelter in Kabul.

Currently, fewer than half of the country’s 34 provinces have women’s shelters. Women who flee abuse are often prosecuted for “running away from home” even though there is no such crime on the Afghan books.

HRW says that part of the reason many officials don’t take the plight of women seriously is because child and forced marriage are still allowed. The Supreme Court recently ruled that women were only allowed to seek safety in the home of a relative or with the justice department. Many women refuse to turn to the government, however, for fear of facing further abuse or being forced to return home.

Underlying all of these challenges is the belief of many religious factions in the Afghan government that the shelters are aiding “bad girls.” One TV program even alleged that the shelters are really prostitution rings. The public outcry influenced an investigation and a report of one Mullah who in turn contributed to drafting this legislation.

Downward Spiral

“The government is increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives who are hostile to the very idea of shelters, since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members,” said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at HRW.

“Since the fall of the Taliban, courageous Afghan women have created places of safety for women and girls who are most in need,” she added. “It would be tragic if growing conservatism in the government unraveled their achievements.”

But that is precisely what this resolution does, both on its face and by implication.

One specific provision requires that women undergo a forensic examination upon entering the shelter, in a country where few female medics exist. They are not given a choice, but are simply required to comply.

“Forcing women to undergo forensic examinations violates their rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity,” HRW said.

HRW is also concerned with the likelihood that the government would cave into the pressures of a family who is searching for a woman or girl. Releasing them to their abuser puts them in grave danger and perhaps places their life at risk.

“Long-Term Funding”

The Afghan government is hiding behind the guise that if it gains control of these shelters it will guarantee long-term funding, something the non-profits can’t necessarily do. Many who currently manage the shelters doubt the government’s ability to do so and, while they would welcome the guarantee of sustained financial support, they place greater value on their independence.

“The international community gives $11 million and we can work with much less of a budget,” said Hussan Ghazanfar, the acting minister of women’s affairs. “If they are not ready to give us this money, only one million will take care of this. This budget we can find from anywhere.”

The UN also weighed in saying in a statement that it “recognizes that government monitoring and oversight of these centers is needed. At the same time, civil society organizations should continue to operate women protection centers/shelters independently.”

In a country where women are so egregiously abused, it would be an incredible tragedy for these shelters to be handed over to the control of the government. A government rife with conservative religious groups that believe the shelters should be shut down. The women of Afghanistan desperately need more of these shelters – not government-controlled ones. Here’s hoping the resolution doesn’t pass.

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