A man on trial was sentenced to five years in prison. The accused offered his 16-year-old daughter to the 50-year-old judge of the appeals court to rescind his sentence. The judge agreed. The girl's mother refused. The daughter, barely out of school, too, refused. But the judge started threatening the man saying that he would certainly go to prison if the marriage didn't happen. As the situation grew desperate, the mother kidnapped her own child and brought her over to a women's shelter to keep her safe.
In Afghanistan, where mothers have to kidnap their own children to keep them safe, women's shelters assume more meaning than just being places where poor or abandoned women find temporary refuge. Recently these homes, which often make a crucial difference between life and death for women in a country that recognises no law and has no helpline to protect women from violence, came under fire from a government that has lately started negotiating with the Taliban for greater concord within the country's beleaguered borders.
In an unprecedented move, the government recently declared they would take over all the shelters run by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), following accusations that these homes, run with foreign funding, were dens of vice with prostitution and rampant drug abuse. Also as caretaker Minister for Women's Affairs, Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar, infamously declared that many women were apparently tricked into leaving families especially since they had little knowledge of what the Qur'an demanded of them as females.
Therefore, to ensure a more 'legal' way to run the shelters, it was decided that these homes would be transferred to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. A woman in need of help would have to explain her case before an eight-member government panel and undergo an euphemistically termed 'forensic' examination (little more than a crude virginity test) to determine 'adultery' before the judges would decide whether to send her to the shelter, or return her to the situation she was escaping from.
Fortunately, this plan fell through as intense international diplomatic and media pressure saw the government reverse its stance. Various Afghani women's groups had joined hands with the media globally to protect these homes. But the battle is far from over. This win will not ensure that these safe houses will continue as before and that there won't be attempts made to infringe on their independence. The fear is not unfounded because in Afghanistan running away from home for women is deemed as equivalent to committing a moral crime along the lines of adultery. After all, the crackdown on the homes was preceded by a long smear campaign by the Afghani Noorin TV, that broadcast a programme accusing those running the shelters of encouraging 'immorality'. Of course, the show could produce no concrete evidence of this.
Says Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan Researcher, Asia- Pacific Programme, Amnesty International, "Understand the way society works in Afghanistan. We have a very traditional society, which is male dominated. Compound patriarchy with religious fundamentalism and that makes the situation very challenging."
Mosadiq's work has taken her to many shelters, a lot of them operating in secrecy. "They house women of all ages. Enter one and you will see girls who escaped domestic violence and forced marriages when they were as young as 13 years of age. You will also see women in their late 40s or 50s who need to be protected from further violence, the violence that unfortunately is committed by husbands, fathers, brothers and other family members," she elaborates. "The government's stance has terrified them. We must remember that many of them here are victims of violence perpetrated either by government officials or those connected with the government," she adds.
According to Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, "The government is increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives, who are hostile to the very idea of shelters, since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members."
A young woman deported by Iranian security to Afghanistan was kidnapped and continuously physically abused for over a year. Later, she found herself on the street, a victim of sexual slavery, when a shopkeeper in the market she frequented got her to a shelter. She was pregnant and didn't know who the father was. She was looked after in the shelter and today at least has some joy in watching her child grow up. This case isn't a rare story. In the 10 years since these shelters started functioning, women like her have found some tenuous hope in these safe houses.
When Manizha Naderi, the executive director of Women for Afghan Women (WAW), heard of the government's impending move, she was outraged. The WAW's Kabul shelter is one of the 14 privately-run institutions across Afghanistan. Illustrating the importance of independent shelters, she says, "Some of the girls are escaping situations of extreme abuse. One 18-year-old married to a 60-year-old was regularly beaten. She bore it all till one night he burnt her, chopped her hair off and threatened to sell her to pay off his debts. Children too are at risk. We recently rescued an 11-year-old sold off to fuel her father's drug habit."
Afghan marriage law stipulates that girls at age 16 and boys at age 18 can be legally married. But in a country where women are little more than a commodity, this has little meaning. Most WAW clients remain with their families while their case is being resolved, but those who have suffered heinous abuses, whose lives are in danger, or who have nowhere else to go, live in WAW's secret shelters while counsellors and lawyers help them get justice. "A woman recently stoned and then shot to death in Kunduz for defying her parents to marry her boyfriend is an example of a person who would have been saved by a shelter run by an NGO. These essential services for women will end once shelters are under government control. That's the sole reason for the attempted takeover," adds Naderi. "Otherwise, if the government wants shelters, why haven't they opened some of their own?"
But running a shelter, even if it's secret, can be dangerous business. As Naderi reveals, "We face angry relatives who think we are corrupting those coming to us. This can get ugly. There is no training that equips us to deal with this really."
According to a Human Rights Watch report titled, 'We Have the Promises of the World: Women's Rights in Afghanistan', a nationwide survey of levels of violence against Afghan women found that 52 per cent of respondents experienced physical violence, and 17 per cent reported sexual violence. Yet, because of social and legal obstacles to accessing justice, few women and girls report violence to the authorities.
While these shelters are havens of safety, much more needs to be done for the women seeking care. Afghan women can't leave even if they find employment until a male relative comes to claim them. That makes them virtual prisoners of the shelters. "Remember the girl kidnapped by her mother? She was bright and beautiful. Just entering high school, the shelter was good to keep her protected but then what about her future? Can you imagine what would happen to this girl if the government was in charge? The judge would simply take her back," says Mosadiq.
By arrangement with WFS