Afghan Women’s Shelter Advocates Call for International Solidarity

KABUL, Afghanistan – This morning, leading women’s rights activists reiterated their position that the Afghan government’s impending takeover of women’s shelters will be a human rights disaster and stressed the need for international solidarity and diplomatic support for their cause. UN Dispatch was there.

The activists’ main points:

1.) The government’s stipulation that women seeking admission to shelters must justify their cases to a government panel will be wide open to political manipulation.

“This bureaucratic measure –which experience proves would be subject to corruptive influence by powerful members of society—will only result in imminent threats to any women escaping violence and can result in the loss of her life,” the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), the civil society coalition that organized the press conference, said in an English press release distributed to journalists. “Knowing this to be the case, fewer women will seek help.”

“We believe people operating above the law will influence decisions about women in shelters,” Soraya Sobhrang, the commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told the press. Sobhrang said former militia commanders within the president’s inner circle were behind the government’s crackdown on women’s shelters.

According to AWN’s statement, “On many occasions, government officials, pressured by influential people in society or political circles, have exposed the location of women seeking refuge or forced them to return to their families, who then punish them [the women] for trying to escape.”

2.) The new shelter rules were formulated without the input of shelter residents, women’s rights activists, or development experts. Instead, the regulations were drawn up by powerful men opposed to the very idea of shelters for women fleeing abuse at the hands of their families.

“Considering the inability of women to access justice, victims of domestic abuse and rape can easily fall prey to state punishment,” said AWN. “Experience shows that courts in Afghanistan do not differentiate between rape and adultery.”

Activists speaking at the press conference brought up instances of women jailed for running away from violent homes and abused by the police and judiciary.

3.) The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the government body slated to take control of the shelters, has neither the management capacity nor commitment to women’s rights necessary to run the shelters.

AWN said the ministry was already struggling to absorb international aid and would not be able to take on new projects and lines of funding. Activists also said the ministry’s leadership was not dedicated to the welfare of women.

Speaking to UN Dispatch, Sobhrang said that the ministry “has turned against civil society” and is increasingly aligning itself with conservative hardliners on critical issues of women’s human rights.

Wazhma Frogh, a member of AWN’s executive board, said women currently living in shelters are terrified of the new regulations and some have threatened to commit suicide if their safe houses are seized by the government.

4.) Under the guise of freedom of speech, misogynist media personalities are allowed to incite violence against women with complete impunity.

The coalition called on the Ministry of Interior “to investigate and prosecute those media outlets endangering the lives of citizens and creating terror by abusing their journalistic license,” and asked the media itself to refrain from spreading misinformation about shelters and promoting harassment of women human rights defenders.

AWN harshly criticized Noorin TV, a conservative channel that frequently broadcasts attacks on women human rights defenders and aired a series of bogus reports alleging shelters in Kabul were fronts for prostitution. The allegations are credited with escalating the backlash against shelters and influencing the government commission created to recommend reforms.

Noorin TV’s attacks on women challenging harmful traditional practices are “a reflection of its anti-woman sentiment,” AWN said, adding that baseless allegations like those made by the channel’s talk show host Nasto Nadiri, the young pundit at the forefront of the anti-shelter movement, “are putting the lives of women in imminent danger.”

“Misinformation about shelters increases the danger for women living in them,” Sobhrang said. “If a family believes these allegations, and then their daughter or wife is returned to them, they will think, ‘Oh, now I must really punish her.’ There will be no escape.”

5.) The United Nations can help human rights defenders trying to stop the takeover by publicly supporting the continued independence of women’s shelters.

“UNAMA [the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] has not yet released any statements about the government’s regulations for shelters, but this would be very helpful,” Sobhrang said. “Civil society needs international support. We cannot do this alone. UNAMA’s support is especially important, because it works with the government and also defends human rights in Afghanistan.”

Sobhrang also questioned the timing of the crackdown on shelters. “At the same time the government is trying to negotiate [with the Taliban and other insurgent groups], it is becoming more hostile to work for women’s rights,” she said. “We worry this is just the beginning.”