Afghan Shelter Crackdown Sparks International Advocacy

KABUL, Afghanistan – Here at UN Dispatch, we’ve been following the controversy over the Afghan government’s plan to wrest control of women’s shelters from the non-governmental organizations currently running them and apply highly restrictive admissions criteria for abused women and girls.

In response to Afghan activists’ calls for international solidarity, foreign supporters of Afghan women’s rights have launched petitions and written letters asking the Afghan government to back down and the international community to speak up in support of the threatened shelters. Some updates from the past 48 hours:

Marianne Elliot, a former human rights officer at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), was among the first, if not the first, to put together a form letter to be sent to ambassadors in Kabul. Social justice blogger Akhila Kolisetty promoted Marianne’s campaign through her own blog and on Twitter.

Women for Afghan Women then created a Care2 petition that has been signed by over 1,000 people so far.

On Friday, Assistant US Secretary of State Philip Crowley said:

The United States is concerned by the Afghan Government’s proposed changes to the regulation of women’s shelters. While we recognize that the government needs to monitor shelters, it is important that civil society be allowed to operate these facilities independently. In light of the progress that the Afghan Government has achieved in advancing women’s rights over the past decade, we encourage the government to support the humanitarian work of shelter organizations, and affirm their centrality to ensuring the human rights of all Afghans.

The same day, US senators Barabra Boxer, Benjamin Cardin and Jeanne Shaheen  sent a letter to Afghan president Hamid Karzai calling the impending takeover of the shelters a “grave mistake” and reminding Karzai that:

The United States has worked tirelessly and sacrificed enormously in the hope of seeing the emergence of a viable and secure Afghan state. But as the Obama Administration has said, “it is a simple fact that no country can prosper if half its citizens are left behind. Women’s empowerment is inextricably linked to security, economic opportunity, effective governance, and social development.” As such, we urge you to do what is right, ensuring that Afghan women and girls have every opportunity to succeed and that the most vulnerable members of your society are protected.

While these statement were greeted warmly by the human rights community in Kabul, activists in Afghanistan and abroad are still hoping for a statement from US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as ambassadors of other countries engaged in Afghanistan and the head of UNAMA.

The Afghan government, for its part, hasn’t relented. On Saturday, Karzai defended his government’s plans for the shelters. “What we are doing is in accordance with the constitution and human rights; we are trying to do something that will reduce the pain and problems of women,” he said. At the same press conference, the president said shelters “with good reputations” would be supported. What that last statement means at this point isn’t clear. Powerful conservatives in Karzai’s inner circle believe there’s no such thing as a reputable shelter for women fleeing violence, but sustained diplomatic pressure might prompt them to back down, if only for self-preservation.