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Sultana Parvanta

Put the 'haven' back in Afghanistan's shelters for women Add to ...

Afghan women are once again facing another crisis - this time, a government plan to take over the operation of foreign-run shelters for battered and abused women.

The new rules would restrict the admission of women into these safe havens and place the decision in the hands of indifferent government officials who wouldn't have access to those in need of immediate support. Cases would be sent to a high-level legal committee for review. This bureaucratic procedure, open to corruption and manipulation, would undoubtedly lead to situations in which women who've been threatened will be even more hesitant to seek safety at a shelter.

The plan is being decided without input or consultation from the organizations that manage the shelters and without the involvement of women's rights professionals who understand the sensitive nature of such issues in Afghanistan. There is much apprehension, given the fact that Afghan women don't have easy access to justice and, as unvalued citizens, are already victims of violence, domestic abuse and rape. If this plan becomes law, the women will face further punishment and suffering, since current legal practices don't make a distinction between cases of rape and adultery.

Some politicians have condemned women's shelters, seeing them as places that help break family bonds and propel a woman to stand against her husband and family. Critics also say these shelters facilitate and drive women to prostitution.

Discussions with those who run the shelters and with the women who stay there paint a different picture. The accusations, they say, are blatant lies, aimed at destroying the only place where a woman can take refuge from abuse - and from death. These shelters, they argue, offer the only alternative in saving their lives and protecting their dignity.

For Afghan women, home and family are very precious. They devote themselves to preserving and nurturing their families. This allegiance and dedication continue when she calls her husband's family as her own. This new home and family becomes her entire world for the rest of her life.

So imagine what unspeakable conditions would propel an Afghan woman to leave her family and seek sanctuary at a shelter. Can you imagine the psychological, physical, emotional and cultural challenges? Can you imagine the nature of the violence and abuse that would force a woman to flee her house and her family to seek a shelter?

Even before a woman left, she would know that her options would be extremely narrow, that she would be on the streets if her father didn't accept her back. The father, to save face and "honour' in the community, usually would not take back his daughter if still married.

Letters of protest, television interviews, e-mails and petitions are bringing concerned communities together to challenge the new rules and to help focus attention on the need to keep intrusive government officials out of women's shelters.

Afghan women need safe shelters. The government, perhaps in a bid to avoid confrontation, now appears to be quietly yielding to the demands that the shelters should be left to civil society. Let's hope the government will focus on providing oversight to ensure that the centres are safe places for women seeking shelter in times of crisis. Let's also hope the government will protect women's rights in more than words alone.

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