(Kabul) – High-level Afghan government officials have for the first time publicly confirmed that it is not a criminal offense for women and girls to “run away” from home, Human Rights Watch said today. The officials also confirmed fleeing violence or running away was not a basis for women’s detention or prosecution.
Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan government to take immediate steps to end the unlawful imprisonment of women and girls accused of “running away.” Up to 70 percent of the approximately 700 female prisoners in Afghanistan  have been imprisoned for running away, nearly always for fleeing forced marriage or domestic violence, a March 2012 Human Rights Watch report  found.
“The public pledges by top Afghan government officials to end wrongful imprisonment of women and girls fleeing abuse sends an important message of equal rights for women,” said Brad Adams , Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the onus is on President Karzai and his government to promptly free the women and girls who have lost months or years of their lives on these bogus charges.”
At a September 16, 2012 meeting, Justice Minister Habibullah Ghalib, Women’s Affairs Minister Hassan Banoo Ghazanfar, and Deputy Interior Minister Baz Mohammad Yarmand each strongly condemned wrongful imprisonment of women and girls on charges of “running away.” Ghalib said that police and prosecutors should never send cases of “running away” to the courts. Yarmand pledged his commitment to ending abuses by the police, saying that all police had been instructed that running away is not a crime. Ghazanfar said that women and girls accused of running away are not criminals, but generally crime victims who flee to escape violence committed against them.
Fawzia Koofi, director of the lower house parliamentary committee on women’s affairs, and her counterpart, Siddiqa Balkhi, the director of the upper house parliamentary committee on women's affairs, had joined together in calling for the government to immediately free women and girls charged with running away under Afghanistan’s ambiguous and arbitrary “moral crimes” law.
Human Rights Watch research in six prisons and juvenile detention centers has found that some 50 percent of women in prison and some 95 percent of girls in juvenile detention are accused of so-called “moral crimes.”
President Hamid Karzai has in recent years issued a number of presidential decrees releasing significant numbers of imprisoned women and girls, including some accused of “running away.” He has not, however, taken steps to free all women and girls imprisoned on these charges or to prevent future arrests and convictions for “running away.”
“Pardoning victims of unlawful imprisonment for running away does nothing to end this abuse,” Adams said. “President Karzai should immediately issue a decree prohibiting all arrests and prosecutions for ‘running away’ and order the release of all women and girls currently imprisoned on this charge.”
Imprisonment is not the only danger faced by women and girls who flee abuse at home, Human Rights Watch said. “Honor killings” are common in Afghanistan, and a woman or girl who flees home without her family’s permission is often seen as having brought shame upon the family. Male family members sometimes respond by murdering their relative. Human Rights Watch’s research found that many of the 58 women and girls interviewed feared murder at the hands of their families following their release from imprisonment.
An important development since 2001 has been the creation of shelters in Afghanistan for women fleeing violence. These shelters are the only refuge for women and girls leaving prison who are at risk of murder by their families. Such shelters, however, are in short supply, with only 14 nation-wide and none in the southern region of the country where women’s rights are particularly controversial.
Afghanistan’s shelters also suffer from a lack of support from the government. The government does not fund shelters, and a government attempt to take over control of the shelters in 2011 prompted fears that it intended to close off access to shelters. In June 2012, controversy erupted again when Ghalib, in a public meeting, described the shelters as hosting “immorality and prostitution.” Ghalib later apologized for his remarks after women’s rights activists called for him to be fired.
“Afghanistan’s shelters save the lives of women every day,” Adams said. “The Afghan government and international donors should work together to ensure that every Afghan woman and girl facing abuse or death has easy access to a safe shelter.”