February 10, 2011; Source: New York Times |  In what has been described as an attempt to pander to religious conservatives, the Afghan government is apparently planning to take over shelters that women in Afghanistan use to flee from abuse and forced marriages.

According to Human Rights Watch, “Violence against women and girls [in Afghanistan], 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.”

The 14 shelters, run by NGOs, have evidently been under consistent attack by conservative politicians and media. In particular, one talk show host has characterized the shelters in Kabul as brothels, controlled by foreigners and, according to Human Rights Watch, a series of programs on Noorin TV in 2010 made unsubstantiated claims that linked the shelters to prostitution. Una Moore wrote about the situation for the UN Dispatch: “The government will seize all women’s shelters countrywide and place them under the control of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the police. Women and girls seeking protection will have to plead their cases before an admissions panel of government employees and undergo medically dubious ‘examinations’ to prove they are not guilty of adultery or prostitution. If a woman passes both tests and is admitted, she will not be allowed to leave without official permission. In effect, Afghanistan’s few refuges for abused women are about to become prisons.”

Rachel Reid, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, writes on its website: “The Afghan government claims that taking over the shelters would lead to sustainable funding and better management, but the real agenda is clear. 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.”

Human Rights Watch asserts that the Council of Ministers in January sent a letter to shelter providers ordering them to, within 45 days,  transfer control of the shelters to the Women’s Affairs Ministry. But this is still awaiting a final ratification of the draft regulation.—Ruth McCambridge