(New York) - An Afghan government move to take over the operations of women's shelters threatens the safety of women and girls in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the government to support, rather than control, the work of shelter providers to ensure that women fleeing domestic violence are able to find safe and secure refuge.
The government is considering a draft regulation on Women's Protection Centers that would allow it to take over management of existing shelters for women, almost all of which are operated by nongovernmental organizations or the United Nations. Adoption of the regulation would result in the closure of some shelters, restrictions on women's freedom of movement, compulsory forensic examinations, a likely reduction in protection of shelter residents from abusers, and the possible expulsion of women still in need of safety, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Afghan government claims that taking over the shelters would lead to sustainable funding and better management, but the real agenda is clear," said 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."
In January 2011, the Council of Ministers sent a letter to shelter providers ordering them to transfer control to the Women's Affairs Ministry within 45 days. To put the plan in effect, the Council of Ministers must approve the draft regulation. The council meets every Monday.
The regulation gives power to the Ministry of Women's Affairs to appoint female ministry employees as the director and deputy director of each shelter. It also creates a committee made up of government appointees that controls entry and dismissal from shelters. Shelter providers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they often face death threats from families demanding the return of women or girls in the shelters' care. Human Rights Watch has also documented cases in which women in NGO-run shelters who fear lethal retribution from their families have come under pressure to return home from government officials, including some in the Women's Affairs Ministry.
"This government is full of misogynist warlords and wide open to corruption," Reid said. "A government shelter is far more likely to cave in to pressure from families and tribes to hand back the victims, which will put women's lives at risk."
The draft resolution contains a number of other deeply problematic provisions, Human Rights Watch said. One would require every woman admitted to a shelter to undergo a forensic examination. Women and girls fleeing abuse should not be assumed to require a forensic examination, or to have committed a crime, which the compulsory imposition of such an examination implies.
Such examinations can be traumatic for women, particularly in a country with limited numbers of female forensic medics. In cases where women have been subjected to violence, the UN World Health Organization specifies that doctors should respect the wishes of women survivors of violence and explain the advantages and disadvantages of a medical examination, giving women and girls the option to undergo a complete or partial medical examination or even to refuse to undergo the examination.
Forcing women to undergo forensic examinations violates their rights to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity, Human Rights Watch said.
Another problematic provision states that residents can be evicted from the shelter if they are "accepted into the home of her family or another relative," or upon "marriage," but does not say that the woman's consent should be a precondition for such a decision. A woman or girl facing domestic abuse, which usually involves one or more members of her own family, should not be forcibly returned to her family or relatives.
The draft regulation also states that women would not be allowed to leave the shelter's compound. While there are strong grounds for concern about the safety of women, decisions about freedom of movement should be based solely on these security considerations, rather than imposing a prison-like ban on freedom of movement in violation of Afghan and international law.
"Today President Hamid Karzai calls the Taliban his brothers and seeks their support," Reid said. "He should think of the sisters, daughters, and mothers who are at risk, and take steps to protect them, including rejecting this regressive measure."
The need for shelters for women and girls in Afghanistan is acute, Human Rights Watch said. Violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape, is endemic. Forced and child marriage remain widespread and socially accepted. Though the data on the extent of the problem vary, all surveys indicate that well over half of the marriages in Afghanistan are forced or involve girls under age 16. Since violence and abuse often take place inside the family, there is a vital need for safe and secure places for women, Human Rights Watch said.
Fewer than half of the 34 provinces in the country currently have shelters. Many women and girls are prosecuted for "running away from home" when they flee abuse, even though there is no such crime under Afghan law.
What underlies this punishment of victims is a failure by the police and other security officials to recognize forced and child marriage as a crime under Afghan law, Human Rights Watch said. This practice was recently codified by a Supreme Court directive in October 2010 (1497/1054), which said that women and girls were only permitted to seek refuge in the home of a relative or with the Security or Justice Departments, and that those who sought refuge elsewhere could be prosecuted. Research by Human Rights Watch and other organizations shows that many women are afraid to seek help from justice or security departments because they fear they will face further abuse or be forcibly returned home.
Women's shelters have long been controversial among hard-line religious factions, who have portrayed them as encouraging immorality or providing protection for "bad girls." This view was reflected in a series of programs broadcast by Noorin TV in mid-2010, which made unsubstantiated claims linking shelters with prostitution and other abuses of women residents. A conservative mullah who led a government inquiry into shelters, Nematullah Shahrani, told reporters that public complaints about shelters following the TV program influenced his investigation. Shahrani's commission fed into the proposed regulation.
Selay Ghaffar, executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), which runs a shelter, told Human Rights Watch, "The real reason for this regulation is that all those conservatives in the supreme court, the cabinet, the parliament, the ministries, all want to close down shelters. They want to control women, to push women back into their houses, like under the Taliban regime."
The government has justified its move to take over shelters partly on the grounds that it can offer sustainable long-term funding. But while many nongovernmental organizations would welcome long-term funding from the government, shelter providers have told Human Rights Watch that they doubt the capacity of the Women's Affairs Ministry to manage the shelters.
The proposed regulation contains some positive measures, such as setting out minimum standards of food and heating, requiring shelters to provide education and literacy services, and requiring that any police interviews with women or girls in shelters must be carried out by female officers.
"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."