More than 8 out of 10 Afghan women and girls will suffer domestic and other violence in their lifetime. Before 2001, they had nowhere to run. These days there are some safe havens: the country’s tiny, but desperately important, network of women’s shelters.
But these shelters are now under attack – and not for the first time – by Afghanistan’s own government. Last month, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) announced plans to seize control of shelter funding provided by foreign donors, and instead require shelter operators to seek funding through the ministry. This might sound reasonable – a hallmark of President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been a push for greater government control over donor funds in the name of anti-corruption.
But we’ve seen this before. In 2011, MoWA also pushed for control of the shelters and used the same rhetoric as this time – alluding to “problems” in the refuges and suggesting – falsely – that shelters are brothels. But these abusive lies have been spread for years by opponents of women’s rights, who believe that women should have no safe haven from their husband no matter how violent and that a father or brother should have total control over the life – or death – of a woman.
In 2011, I was one of several lawyers who spent many hours reviewing the regulation MoWA sought to impose on shelters. It was clear that it intended to deprive women of refuge. Under the regulation, women would have been forced to convince a panel that they deserve shelter, and to undergo humiliating and medically meaningless “virginity tests.” Worst of all, they would have been turned over to their families at the relatives’ request – although nearly all were fleeing abuse from their own family.
In 2011, and in 2013 when MoWA tried again, international donors who fund the shelters fought back.
But foreign donor interest in Afghanistan has fallen dramatically. It is far from clear that they will fight again to save the shelters.
I have met Afghan women whose lives were saved by these refuges. I remember the fear in their eyes. If donors don’t act – and fast – they will have even more to fear.