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Afghan Government's Takeover of Women's Shelters Adds Insult to Injury

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By Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International's Afghanistan Researcher.

The recent move by Afghanistan's Ministry of Women Affairs (MoWA) to take control of women's shelters is deeply worrying. I have spoken to NGO workers who run these shelters, and they have been outraged by the new legislation.

Over the past few years I have personally been able to see the work of five of these shelters out of a total of 14 set up around the country by NGOs after the Taleban's fall. The shelters house hundreds of Afghan women and girls whose lives are at risk due to forced marriage, underaged marriage, and other forms of violence.

Amnesty International urges the Afghan government to reconsider this terrible piece of legislation and, instead, recommit itself to protecting the women of Afghanistan and those courageous human rights defenders, many of them women, who are trying to counteract years of discrimination and sexual violence against the women of Afghanistan.

As an Afghan woman I was extremely proud of the work of my colleagues in establishing these shelters, despite lack of resources, cultural prejudices, and intimidation. Intimidation, from the family members of the women seeking shelter, from the government, from political figures supposedly allied with the government, and from the Taleban and other anti-government groups.

In one case, in 2008, the founder of one of the NGOs running a shelter was effectively detained for a full day by high officials in the Attorney General's office, simply because she was trying to resolve a case of domestic violence that affected the family of a government official.

Now, instead of supporting the efforts of these brave Afghan women, the MoWA legislation tries to take control of the running of the shelters, and oversee who is eligible for protection via an eight-person admission panel stacked with representatives from government ministries.

The legislation also introduces a requirement of a 'forensic medical examination' if requested by the admission panel, a term referring to the examination that women are subjected to when accused of adultery - a criminal offense in Afghanistan.

This test examines women for evidence of sexual activity - not to protect them in case of sexual abuse, or gather evidence against their abusers, but rather to see if they are somehow morally at fault, and therefore, subject to prosecution!

The women who run the shelters rightly see the MoWA legislation as an insulting provision that will re-victimise women. It could even be an avenue that is open to abuse for those in power who wish to put these vulnerable women behind bars for 'adultery'.

The admission panel itself will not only complicate the process and deny protection to women and girls who need it, but also raise the very serious risk that women who have fled abuse by those with government connections will be put at even more risk, and be sent back to more abuse.

The panel will consist of representatives from the Ministry of Women Affairs, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Supreme Court, General Attorney's Office, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, Ministry of Public Health, and Ministry of Justice, A civil society representative appointed by MoWA will make the final decision.
The legislation has clearly not been designed to guarantee the wellbeing and protection of vulnerable women. Not only does it insult them and increase intrusive government control over their fate, it fails to mention any guarantee or monitoring of wellbeing or protection for the women and girls if they are taken into care by their relatives or discharged from the shelters.

The Afghan government and MoWA should repeal this new legislation and let the NGOs who know better than anyone how to care for and support women at risk to do their jobs.

If the Afghan government really wants to be more supportive of vulnerable women, it should provide better funding to the shelters instead of restricting their work.