Afghan Women Fight Back, Preserve Shelters

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In Afghanistan, women's groups are claiming a rare victory.

Last winter, the government was planning to bring battered women's shelters under government control.

Women's rights advocates sprang into action, complaining that the new rules would turn shelters into virtual prisons for women who had run away from home because of abuse. But after a flurry of media attention, the Afghan government agreed to re-examine the issue. And this month, President Hamid Karzai's Cabinet quietly approved a new draft that has support from women's groups.

The controversy began last year when a tabloid television program broadcast from outside one of Afghanistan's few shelters for battered women. With no evidence, the program claimed the shelter was a front for prostitution — a libel that is often directed at any woman living independently in conservative Afghan society.

"Unfortunately, a woman's issue is a political issue," says Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center.

She says high-ranking government officials can often sound like the Taliban on women's issues. In that atmosphere, the government drafted the law that would have put them in charge of shelters. Before women could enter, they would need government approval and even virginity tests.

Akrami says the threat of such a law galvanized activists and forced the government to respond after months of discussion.

"In general, I am really very optimistic," she says. "Since last year, we have seen a lot of positive changes."

Shelters To Remain Independent

The government has removed almost all of the objectionable parts of the shelter regulation, she says. Most importantly, the shelters will remain independent and able to receive money from donors without going through the Afghan government.

The women's groups "were able to convince the government and others that shelters were needed, [and that] they needed to be independent to preserve women's rights and dignity," says Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. "So this regulation is really a victory for women's rights in Afghanistan."

The government has not advertised the changes, presumably because it does not want to reignite the controversy generated last winter by supporters and opponents of the draft law.

Once the regulations are published, women's shelters across the country will have three months to comply.

There are still some issues with the law, says Selay Ghaffar, who runs a shelter in Kabul. She says one regulation makes it impossible for a woman to move out of the shelter unless she is going to the home of a male relative.

Ghaffar says that in many cases, those same male relatives may have abused or threatened to kill the woman in the first place, leading her to the shelter. But Ghaffar concedes that may be more a problem with Afghan society, where it's nearly impossible for a woman to live alone, without a husband, father, brother or a grown son.

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