The Afghan government’s recent proposal to take control of women’s shelters has human rights groups and women’s rights advocates alarmed that the move further threatens the safety of women and girls in Afghanistan.
The new regulation, drafted by the Ministry of Justice, would subject victims of domestic abuse to compulsory forensic examinations and severely limit women’s freedom of movement in what rights groups are deeming near-incarceration.
“It could be devastating,” said Human Rights Watch‘s Afghanistan researcher Rachel Reid of the regulation, which resulted from a government investigation ordered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai into the running of the shelters.
The changes in law seem to defy the very reason for the shelters’ existence – to provide a genuine place of refuge to Afghan women facing life-threatening or abusive circumstances. Under its guidelines, which would grant the Women’s Affairs Ministry full control, women will have to justify their flight to an eight-member government panel which would then determine whether she’d be accepted into the shelter, sent to jail, or back to a potentially life-threatening situation at home, where there is risk of being beaten or killed as punishment for flight.
Victims will be required to undergo monthly medical examinations, including a virginity test upon admission, and be obliged to wear headscarves at all times. What’s more, women will only be allowed to leave the grounds of the shelter with permission granted by the ministry, and can be evicted if they are “accepted into the home of her family or another relative,” or upon “marriage,” without the woman’s consent.
“It puts the safety of women in shelters into question,” warned Humi Safi of Afghan rights group Women for Afghan Women, which runs three shelters and five family counseling centers around the country.
Critics of the proposal argue that the regulation is only the beginning of a larger government strategy to make concessions to the Taliban in reconciliation efforts led by Karzai’s administration. The proposed reform is escalating fears amongst women’s advocates that women’s rights will be the first to be compromised during negotiations.
“This campaign in meant to try to appease the Taliban; it is a goodwill gesture toward them,” Manizha Naderi, the director of Women for Afghan Women told the Los Angeles Times. “For that reason, it’s very, very dangerous.”
The 14 shelters that exist in Afghanistan today are financed by international organizations, private donors and Western governments. The new law would place those shelters under direct government control, which will likely lead to the closure of several, and the expulsion of women under their care.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and shelter directors, the ministry doesn’t have the budget, staff, or expertise to take on the job of running the shelters.
“The ministry cannot find staff for its offices in some of the provinces,” Soraya Sobhrang, a member of the human rights commission, told the New York Times, “so how will they find staff for the more sensitive job of running the shelters?”
Underpinning the debate of government control of shelters is the ongoing struggle between the deeply conservative forces in Afghan society and the more moderate proponents of modern values. Some members of the parliament view the shelters as an injection of Western culture into their society, and would like to see them closed all together. Unsubstantiated claims linking the shelters to prostitution and drug use have been made by government officials.
Hajjii Neyaz Mohammed, a conservative lawmaker from the Ghazni province condemned the shelters as “the official places for increasing perversion in our country.”
“These shelters create problems in families and homes, and they motivate girls to flee from their houses,” he said. Mohammed added that most of the women and girls aren’t accepted back into their communities once they leave as they are suspected of having committed adultery.
It’s not only male members of government who wish to see the shelters closed. Afghanistan’s top female official, Hussan Ghazanfar, shocked many when she slandered the shelters on Tuesday, calling them corrupt, insisting that the government take control of them regardless of whether or not donors continue to fund them.
Ghazanfar also said that many of the women in shelters were “deceived women who don’t have the necessary information about Islam.”
What all this means for Afghan women seeking refuge from sexual and physical abuse remains unclear. The need for shelters in Afghanistan is acute, where violence against women and girls is endemic, and forced and child marriage is considered common practice. A United Nations report last year noted that “honor” killings remain widespread and that authorities were failing to enforce laws to protect women and girls.
The Taliban ushered in one of the most oppressive periods for women in Afghan history when they took power in 1996, barring women from education, most jobs, and forcing them to wear burqas outside the home. To ensure complete invisibility, the government ordered all exterior of homes to be painted black, and women were prevented from leaving their homes without the accompaniment of a male relative.
Women’s advocates such as the Afghan’s Women’s Network are rightfully concerned that the draft regulation would hurt whatever limited progress has been made on women’s rights since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
“Since the fall of the Taliban, courageous Afghan women have created places of safety for women and girls who are most in need,” Reid said. “It would be tragic if growing conservatism in the government unraveled their achievements.”
– Lena Shemel, Women, War & Peace Production Assistant