Afghan Government Cracks Down on Women’s Shelters

KABUL, Afghanistan – The struggle for human rights in Afghanistan received an alarming setback when the Afghan government announced that it will take over all women’s shelters in the country within weeks. Activists are outraged and see the takeover as an attempt to shut down the few places women find protection from violent families and forced marriages.

Conservative politicians and media personalities have long railed against Afghanistan’s few women’s shelters and demanded that the facilities be closed. Two years ago, the government appointed a hard-line mullah to lead a commission to investigate shelters and recommend reforms. Then, in 2010, right wing talk show host Nasto Nadiri escalated the campaign against women’s shelters by running a series of fake reports on shelters in Kabul. Nadiri alleged that the shelters were controlled by foreigners and used as brothels. Despite lacking evidence, the bombastic pundit’s claims further riled conservatives and influenced the investigatory commission.  (One member of the shelter commission later told the Scotsman, “Of course, if a shelter is working under control of foreigners, without the police or the government’s knowledge, then the women will be prostitutes.”) Human rights activists worried a crackdown was imminent.

Now, the shelter commission’s verdict is in. The government will seize all women’s shelters countrywide and place them under the control of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the police. Women and girls seeking protection will have to plead their cases before an admissions panel of government employees and undergo medically dubious “examinations” to prove they are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. If a woman passes both tests and is admitted, she will not be allowed to leave without official permission. In effect, Afghanistan’s few refuges for abused women are about to become prisons.

Under the new shelter regulations, if a woman’s family comes to claim her, she must be handed over. If enforced, this rule will cost lives. Nearly all women living in Afghanistan’s shelters are survivors of violence inflicted by members of their own families. Some have been disfigured and permanently disabled by abusive fathers and husbands and have fled with their children. Others, including young girls, have been sold or given away to settle disputes and erase family debts. Forcibly returning these women to the homes they fled from will amount to a death sentence for some.

More than half of all marriages in Afghanistan are forced unions involving girls under age 16, and forcibly married women and girls are at high risk for murder at the hands of relatives and suicide.

A recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on violence against women noted that:

Widespread harmful traditional practices – child marriage, giving away girls for dispute resolution, forced isolation in the home, exchange marriage and “honour” killings – cause suffering, humiliation and marginalization for millions of Afghan women and girls. Such practices are grounded in discriminatory views and beliefs about the role and position of women in Afghan society. Many Afghans, including some religious leaders reinforce these harmful customs by invoking their interpretation of Islam. In most cases, however, these practices are inconsistent with Sharia law as well as Afghan and international law, and violate the human rights of women.

Afghanistan’s weak formal justice system is biased in favor of men, informal dispute resolution practices are even worse, and advocates for abused women face tremendous dangers on the job, as TIME recently reported:

Abdul Wahid Zhian, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance, had to leave his native Ghazni province a year ago after taking on two controversial runaway cases that resulted in his receiving death threats. The first case involved a father who had raped and impregnated his daughter but was acquitted of charges. In the second, two girls were raped by their father and brother. Yet the men were pardoned, in the interest of resolving an interfamily dispute, by a tribal jirga that ultimately decided that matters could be made right by executing the lawyer and the girls. (They are now in hiding.) “We have a cultural problem here that undermines the law,” says Zhian, who is now seeking asylum abroad. He remains adamant that “running away is a right, not a crime.”

Less than half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have even one shelter for women. Yet, where shelters do exist, they save women’s lives. To protect these lifelines, the human rights community is working behind the scenes to stop the government’s impending takeover.

Activists are deeply disappointed in the actions of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWa), the government arm mandated to improve women’s lives, and worry the ministry won’t protect women at risk.

Soraya Pakzad, a women’s rights advocate who runs shelters in western Afghanistan, told the New York Times, “Many times, I have faced difficulties from the governor or district governor who are supporting the family of the girl, not the girl. If her father is an ex-commander and the judge is a friend and they say, ‘You have to send the girl home,’ we are able to raise our voices, but I am afraid that courage will not be found in the Department of Women’s Affairs.”

Politically, the shelter crackdown will have far-reaching consequences. Afghanistan’s government survives on bi-lateral aid and foreign military support. For nine years, donor governments have cited improvements in women’s lives when justifying continued engagement to their increasingly skeptical citizens. When the Afghan parliament passed a law creating a separate and blatantly misogynist family law for the country’s Shia population in 2009, opponents of international support to Kabul seized the law as evidence of the futility of defending the Afghan government. Why, they asked, should foreign soldiers die fighting the Taliban when the government was going to enact Taliban-style policies anyway? Publics in Europe and elsewhere responded with calls for reduced aid and the withdrawal of their troops as soon as possible. This latest attack on women’s rights will further erode what little foreign grassroots support still exists for the fragile Afghan state, the collapse of which would only compound Afghan women’s suffering.