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Tradition vs. Women's Rights in Afghanistan's Shelters

The future of shelters for abused women in Afghanistan pits women against tradition.


Women living in Afghanistan who are abused have limited choices. But for those women who leave in search of refuge, returning home from shelters is nearly impossible. A recent article in The New York Times investigated the plight of women trapped between tradition and a way out. Women's shelters provide women with a safe space from scenes of domestic violence or unwanted arranged marriages. However, the shelters are run by international NGOs which is a problem for the Afghan government. The government's must bow to conservative elements of society that seek to preserve Afghan traditions:

The new rules speak to the suspicions that women’s shelters still generate in this deeply conservative society, where the shelters have come to symbolize the competition between modern values and traditional Afghan ways. Many believe their very existence at best encourages girls to run away from home and at worst are fronts for brothels.


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To some Afghans, the shelters represents invasive elements into society coming from the West. Because they are run by international organizations they appear to be working for interests other than local ones. This is one reason why Hamid Karzai's Ministry of Women is seeking to take over the shelters from foreign organizations. However, it clear what effect changes in the law would have on women living in Afghanistan:

The changes in the law would require a woman like Sabra to justify her flight to an eight-member government panel, which would determine whether she needed to be in a shelter or should be sent to jail or back home, where she would be at risk of a beating or even death. She would also have to undergo a physical exam that could include a virginity test.

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In essence, if the government took over care of the shelters there is a large potential that women would not even been able gain access to them in the first place. However, issues surrounding government control of shelters are the smallest of concerns when compared to the ability of women to reenter society after going to a shelter.

In 90 percent of cases when girls return from the shelters to their villages, they will not be accepted by the community and will be suspected of having committed adultery, he said.

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Reuters reports:

"It could be devastating," Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan researcher Rachel Reid said of the regulation (to close the shelters), which requires approval by Karzai and his Council of Ministers to become law. The government, Reid told Reuters, is trying "to position itself as something the Taliban can do business with."

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The Taliban barred women from education and most jobs and ordered them to wear burqas outside the home. Almost a decade since its overthrow, the United Nations said in a report last year that child marriage and "honor" killings remained widespread and the authorities were failing to enforce laws to protect women and girls.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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