A coalition of Afghan human rights groups says a government plan to take over the operation of foreign-run women's shelters could put vulnerable women and girls at greater risk of sexual and physical violence at the hands of vengeful relatives.
"These are women who have witnessed up close the torture and killing of other women and have themselves been the victims of horrific abuse," the Afghan Women's Network, an umbrella group of 75 non-profit associations, said in a statement Wednesday.
Activists are raising alarms about the plan, which includes creating a committee to review the case of each woman seeking refuge in a shelter and decide whether to accept her.
The rules reportedly would allow the committee to order a medical exam that could include a virginity test. Since women suspected of promiscuity or having extramarital sex are often arrested in Afghanistan, such a provision could mean that a woman seeking protection from abusive relatives might end up in the hands of police.
The country's 11 safe houses for women are financed by Western governments and foreign aid groups.
Independently-run safe houses stand a chance of protecting women from being hunted down and forcibly returned to the husbands and fathers who abused them, according to the activists.
They fear that a plan to put them under government control, as unveiled by a minister this week, would strip away that protection and subject them to the "powerful and corrupt influences that infect every other part of [the] government."
The move on women's shelters follows a pattern set by President Hamid Karzai.
He has railed against foreign-owned private security companies, which he accuses of behaving like uncontrolled militias, and demanded that international donors put their Afghan assistance programs under government control.
The acting Minister of Women's Affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, used similar arguments in defending the new rules on women's shelters.
In a news conference on Tuesday, she accused the non-governmental organizations that run them of mismanagement and failing to maintain "order and discipline."
Protecting Afghan women is properly the job of her ministry, she said, and it can do it better and more economically.
"We aren't the same country we were nine years ago," Ms. Ghazanfar said. "There have been many changes and more capacity. … We are responsible and should stand on our own two feet."
Critics say that Mr. Karzai's government has shown little concrete commitment to promoting women's rights and the Ministry of Women's Affairs has sometimes failed to protect women who come to their offices seeking help.
"It does not have the capacity, nor can it provide guarantees that those women won't be handed over to their families," said Nader Nadery, a commissioner of the Independent Human Rights Commission. "There have been a number of cases where the ministry has come under pressure and has handed over a couple of women to their families."
In at least two cases in the past few years, the human-rights group learned that the women were murdered by male relatives once they were forced to return home.
"It would be much easier for families to … exert pressure and influence on a government entity than on a woman's shelter whose location most of the time is hidden," Mr. Nadery said.
Most of Afghanistan's shelters are in Kabul. Hundreds of women and girls fleeing forced marriages and abuse manage to find their way to their doors each year.
One of those was Bibi Aisha, married against her will at 14 and mutilated by her husband who sliced off her nose and left her to die after she tried to run away. Her disfigured face, featured on the cover of Time magazine, became an iconic image of Afghan brutality to women that deeply embarrassed the government.