Afghan Women Fight Back, Preserve Shelters

Sep 26, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 10:09 am

In Afghanistan, women's groups are claiming a rare victory.

Last winter, the government was planning to bring battered women's shelters under government control.

Women's rights advocates sprang into action, complaining that the new rules would turn shelters into virtual prisons for women who had run away from home because of abuse. But after a flurry of media attention, the Afghan government agreed to re-examine the issue. And this month, President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet quietly approved a new draft that has support from women's groups.

The controversy began last year when a tabloid television program broadcast from outside one of Afghanistan's few shelters for battered women. With no evidence, the program claimed the shelter was a front for prostitution — a libel that is often directed at any woman living independently in conservative Afghan society.

"Unfortunately, a woman's issue is a political issue," says Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center.

She says high-ranking government officials can often sound like the Taliban on women's issues. In that atmosphere, the government drafted the law that would have put them in charge of shelters. Before women could enter, they would need government approval and even virginity tests.

Akrami says the threat of such a law galvanized activists and forced the government to respond after months of discussion.

"In general, I am really very optimistic," she says. "Since last year, we have seen a lot of positive changes."

Shelters To Remain Independent

The government has removed almost all of the objectionable parts of the shelter regulation, she says. Most importantly, the shelters will remain independent and able to receive money from donors without going through the Afghan government.

The women's groups "were able to convince the government and others that shelters were needed, [and that] they needed to be independent to preserve women's rights and dignity," says Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. "So this regulation is really a victory for women's rights in Afghanistan."

The government has not advertised the changes, presumably because it does not want to reignite the controversy generated last winter by supporters and opponents of the draft law.

Once the regulations are published, women's shelters across the country will have three months to comply.

There are still some issues with the law, says Selay Ghaffar, who runs a shelter in Kabul. She says one regulation makes it impossible for a woman to move out of the shelter unless she is going to the home of a male relative.

Ghaffar says that in many cases, those same male relatives may have abused or threatened to kill the woman in the first place, leading her to the shelter. But Ghaffar concedes that may be more a problem with Afghan society, where it's nearly impossible for a woman to live alone, without a husband, father, brother or a grown son.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now let's talk about the effort to protect some of the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan - battered women. We first reported last winter on a proposal to put shelters for battered women under government control. Women's advocates protested, saying that would turn the shelters into virtual prisons for women who had run away from home. After much media attention, the Afghan government promised to reexamine this issue - and they did. Women's groups are largely pleased with the results. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The controversy began last winter, when a tabloid television program broadcast from outside one of Afghanistan's few shelters for battered women. With no evidence, the presenter claimed the shelter was a front for prostitution - a very common libel for any woman living independently in conservative Afghan society.

MARY AKRAMI: Unfortunately, a woman issue is a political issue.

LAWRENCE: Mary Akrami is director of one Afghan women's shelter. She says very high-ranking government officials often play politics with women's rights, to the point where they sound very much like the Taliban. In that atmosphere last year, the government drafted a law that would have taken control of women's shelters and turned them into virtual prisons, requiring government approval and even virginity tests before women could enter. Akrami says the threat of such a law galvanized activists across the country.

AKRAMI: In general, I am really very optimistic. Since last year, we have seen a lot of positive changes.

LAWRENCE: Akrami says after months of discussion, the government has removed almost all of the objectionable parts of the shelter regulation. Most importantly, the shelters will remain independent and able to receive money from donors without going through the Afghan government. Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, says Afghan women's groups organized and succeeded.

GEORGETTE GAGNON: They were able to convince the government and others that shelters were needed, that they needed to be independent, and they needed to preserve women's rights and dignity. So this regulation is really quite a victory for women's rights in Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: Early this month, the government quietly approved new rules, perhaps wishing to avoid the controversy generated by supporters and opponents of the draft law last winter. Once the regulations are published, women's shelters across the country will have three months to comply. There are still some issues with the law, says Selay Ghaffar, who runs a shelter in Kabul. She says one part of the regulation makes it impossible for a woman to move out of the shelter unless she's going to the home of a male relative.

SELAY GHAFFAR: It's not really too much respecting the human rights for women, being an independent and being freely to have a life and enjoy the basic human rights in this country.

LAWRENCE: Ghaffar says in many cases those same male relatives may have abused or threatened to kill a woman who ends up in a shelter. But she concedes that may be more a problem with Afghan society, where it's nearly impossible for a woman to live alone without a grown son, father or brother. It will take a lot more than a new regulation to change that. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.