One is a barely pubescent girl, forced to wed a much older man to pay a family debt. Another is a scarred and bruised mother of four, so traumatized by her husband’s beatings that she trembles whenever anyone speaks to her. A third is a spirited young woman marked for death by her brothers and father when she tried to run away with the man she wanted to marry.
All found sanctuary at a shelter in the Afghan capital run by a privately funded women’s group. But this fragile haven and others like it are threatened by a plan, laid out publicly Tuesday for the first time by the administration of President Hamid Karzai, to bring all such facilities under strict government control.
Women’s groups and their supporters say making the shelters answerable to the state in every aspect of their day-to-day operations would have a catastrophic effect on their ability to protect women and girls fleeing forced marriage or abuse, and put rape victims at risk of being killed by relatives for the sake of family “honor.”
Activists fear that the takeover plan is part of a larger effort by the Karzai government to solidify its shaky political standing by wooing deeply conservative religious and tribal figures opposed to a broad spectrum of women’s rights.
The government is also trying to lure the Taliban to the bargaining table, leaving many women to fear that the limited freedoms they have achieved since the movement was overthrown nearly a decade ago are more tenuous than ever.
“This campaign is meant to try to appease the Taliban; it is a goodwill gesture toward them,” said Manizha Naderi of the organization Women for Afghan Women, which pioneered the shelter movement and runs group homes in four cities, including Kabul. “For that reason, it’s very, very dangerous.”
Some of the plan’s provisions appear almost guaranteed to ensure that women will not seek help, including a demand that they submit to intrusive medical examinations meant to establish whether they are virgins. Activists also believe government control over the shelters would make it much easier for families to use political influence or bribery to reclaim runaway girls and women, exposing them to retribution perhaps worse than what they fled.
As it is, shelter providers say, only a tiny fraction of women in desperate need of refuge have the luck, will and wherewithal to find their way to one of about a dozen safe houses nationwide, which are mainly in urban centers. Fear keeps most imprisoned at home.
“I would never have had the courage to run if there had not been somewhere to run to,” said Fawzia, a thin, careworn woman from a village in eastern Afghanistan. Her husband and in-laws turned her into a virtual domestic slave, starved and beaten, after she failed to bear children and he took a second, younger wife. A sympathetic teacher helped her make her way to the capital.
The shelter dispute comes as the Karzai government is aggressively seeking to channel foreign aid money away from private organizations and directly into the hands of his administration. Western governments have acknowledged the need for greater accountability in disbursing such funds, but there is very little international appetite for ceding total financial control to corruption-plagued ministries.
Money does appear to be a decisive factor. At a news conference Tuesday, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, the acting minister for women’s affairs and a Karzai appointee, accused the shelters of waste and mismanagement. She portrayed the government drive as an effort to ensure that money earmarked to help abused women, most from outside donors and foreign governments, is spent fairly and efficiently.
“I think those shelters are probably more concerned for their finances than for women,” she said, citing what she claimed were expenditures of hundreds of thousands of dollars by some shelters to care for only a few clients. Ghazanfar said the plan would be implemented soon, though she did not provide a timetable.
Over the last five years, as the shelters have expanded into more areas of Afghanistan, they have been the objects of virulent suspicions in a profoundly traditional society. Particularly in rural Pashtun areas, rumors are rife that these group homes — which generally provide women with vocational training and literacy classes, together with medical treatment and legal advice — are little more than houses of prostitution.
Shelter providers try to allay those accusations by building relationships with the police and serving as go-betweens if abused women wish to return home. Many women do return to be with their children, but they want guarantees from tribal or community leaders that they will not be battered or killed.
Nongovernmental groups running the shelters say they are willing to submit to a reasonable degree of government monitoring, as long as they retain a measure of autonomy.
When the proposal’s broad outlines became known this month, Afghan and foreign rights activists, including groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch and several United Nations agencies, began banding together to try to halt its implementation. But outside organizations are keenly aware that they have to tread carefully to avoid allowing the government to depict their campaign as foreign meddling, a theme frequently invoked by Karzai and his senior aides.
Some activists believe the campaign to curtail the shelters’ activities gained impetus from the case of Bibi Aisha, a former child bride whose nose and ears were cut off by her Taliban husband and his cohorts when she attempted to defy him. After her disfigured but compellingly clear-eyed visage appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year, she was taken to the United States for medical treatment.
The government was mortified by the case, insisting that it was not representative of women’s lot in Afghanistan. Before her departure, Aisha had been given refuge at the Women for Afghan Women shelter in Kabul.
“Why is there no discussion about the abuses these women are fleeing from?” said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s easier for them to have a debate about foreign influence than about the pattern of abuse itself.”
Fawzia, who fled her abusive home, said that until her opportunity to escape she had been ready to seek refuge in death.
“There is such a thing as a life that cannot be lived,” she said. “I was living that life.”