Afghanistan: Calls for women's shelters to be secured


Uphold the rights of Afghan women and girls to be freed from gender-based violence. Secure the independence of women shelters in Afghanistan. The Global Campaign to Stop Violence against Women in the Name of ‘Culture’, an international network of women’s human rights defenders and advocates, fully supports our sisters in Afghanistan in resisting their government’s attempt to put the country’s women shelters under State control. If the Afghan government proceeds with this proposed legislation, it will invite serious risks to the already-fragile security of women and girls who are in desperate need of protection from gender–based violence in their country. This development is alarming and deserves the attention of the international community.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai reversed the announcement made earlier by his Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA), clarifying that the plan is only meant to control one or two shelters accused of ‘corruption’ and ‘wastage’. But women’s groups in the country remain rightly concerned and suspicious of the government’s true objectives. Since January 2010, the Afghan government has been seeking ways to negotiate with the Taleban who are regaining control in many parts of the country. Many women are hence suspicious that the government’s increasing pressures on women’s shelters and other women’s rights advocate groups in Afghanistan are politically-motivated and intended to placate the Taleban and other similarly extremely conservative pseudo-religious armed groups. 

A report published jointly by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Human Rights Team of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in July 2010 pointed out that the rights of Afghan women in the post-Taleban era are being ‘traded’ or used as leverage in political negotiations and alignment of forces amongst the various power-holders in Afghanistan.  Discrimination against women when endorsed by figures, entities, or institutions that wield significant power could quickly lead to the condoning of gender-based violence.[1] Afghan women’s groups fear that a government-run shelter could easily become hostage to pressure from forces who are antagonistic to programs and initiatives that give some women options in life beyond coercion and abuse.

Fourteen (14) shelters were set up around the country by independent Afghan women’s groups after the fall of the Taleban.  Despite a lack of resources, cultural prejudices, and intimidation against them, these shelters have provided protection to countless numbers of Afghan women and girls who have fled from gender-based violence committed against them by members of their own family and community. Acts of gender-based violence confronting many of them include forced marriage, under-aged marriage, and threats of violent punishments because of suspicions that they have defied imposed social norms pertaining to their sexual rights, freedoms of movement and expression, and choice in sexual partner. Most of these violent acts are justified in the name of ‘religion’, yet in fact, these acts have no basis in Islam, which is the dominant religion in Afghanistan.

While the government justified this move on the grounds that it will offer sustainable long-term funding, women’s rights advocates are severely doubtful and skeptical of this promise. The MOWA is widely-known for its ineffectiveness and incompetence in running its current programs and services for women, despite having more resources than the independent women’s NGOs running these shelters.

Our Concerns

The Draft Regulation. There are specific aspects of the proposed regulation that have raised serious concerns on the part of Afghan women’s groups and that need to be addressed by the Afghan government if it intends to support women’s shelters in the future.    

1. The draft regulation intends to create an admission panel comprised of representatives from government ministries that would screen and approve who could be admitted to women’s shelters. Such a panel would make the screening process more cumbersome and will inevitably delay the urgent response needed by women and girls duly seeking protection.  A lack of immediate attention to their situation will place increasing pressures on these women and girls and their vulnerabilities. Given the political climate in Afghanistan, the independence of such a panel from political pressure and influence by pseudo-religious conservative forces is also highly suspect. 

2. The compulsory requirement of ‘forensic medical examination’ of women and girls seeking refuge would violate their rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity. Women accused of adultery under the country’s zina laws are already being forced to subject themselves to such examinations.  Human rights violations from wrongful application of zina laws in Afghanistan have been well documented by international and local human rights and women’s rights groups. These laws are implemented with a strong bias against women and girls. In enforcing this compulsory examination, there are imminent dangers that women who were sexually abused and are now in the care of these shelters would be examined, not to gather evidence to support their case against their violators, but as ‘evidence’ regarding their sexual activity. Under the misapplication of zina, these examinations could then be used against them.

3. The draft regulation would allow a women under the protection of the shelter to be released if she is "accepted into the home of her family or another relative", or upon "marriage". However, this stipulation is silent on the need for an informed consent by the woman who is to be released. Informed consent is an important principle that shelters should be observing if they are to serve the best interests of women under their care. There are also no provisions or alternatives in the proposed regulation that would guarantee a woman’s safety when she is released. Women and girls who have already been subjected to violence by members of their own families and communities are severely at risk by this provision.

4.  The draft regulation prohibits women from leaving the shelter's compound if they believe their safety is at risk. We believe that appropriate restrictions on who is allowed access to women and girls in shelter are important measures that must be observed at all times. The security of women both within and outside the premises of the shelters is of the utmost importance. However, there are concerns that such restrictions would be meaningless if these shelters are run by people who do not take the best interests of the women under their care as their primary consideration. These restrictions should be informed by an awareness and understanding by shelter staff of the rights and gender- and culture-specific needs of women and girls under their care. 

Protection of Staff of Independent Women’s SheltersWe are also concerned with reprisals against women running these independent shelters. Such violence is becoming increasingly imminent. Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have shown that these women are constantly facing death threats from families demanding the return of women or girls under their care. The positive impact of the shelters’ work on women has also made them an easy target of attacks by hard-line conservative religious forces in the country. According to Human Rights Watch, a series of programs broadcast by the local TV station (Noorin TV) last year made unsubstantiated claims linking shelters with prostitution and other abuses of women residents. In 2008, the founder of one of the NGOs running a shelter was effectively detained for a full day by high officials in the Attorney General’s office for trying to resolve a case of domestic violence involving the family of a government official.  There have also been reports of women living in these shelters being pressured to return to their families by government authorities, including by MOWA personnel. 

Our Demands

We are calling on the Afghanistan government to immediately withdraw its plan to take over independent shelters administrated by women’s groups, and to cancel the draft regulation that will pave the way for this shift in control.

We also want to remind the government that as a State party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, it has the obligation to eliminate gender-based violence in all its forms and contexts.

In line with its obligations under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Afghanistan government also has the responsibility to support the work of independent women’s shelters and to ensure the safety of their personnel.  

We also call on governments involved in bilateral and multilateral assistance programs to Afghanistan and the UN agencies, especially UN Women, to include these concerns in their agenda with the Afghan government, and to proactively address the situation of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence wrongly justified in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’.

22 February 2011

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