UPDATE 19 May 2011: Following widespread criticism of government proposals to take over independent women’s shelters in Afghanistan, the draft regulation was reviewed by civil society organizations and the Criminal Law Review Working Group, comprised of experts from the Afghan Government, and national and international organizations including the UN. The new draft allows shelters to be operated by the government as well as by licensed non-governmental organizations. It also includes provisions which clarify the government’s role in the regulation and oversight of protection centers, and establishes a Department of Protection Centers within the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and coordination committees in each province. This draft is currently awaiting approval from the Council of Ministers.
UPDATE 28 February 2011: While the government of Afghanistan has reportedly agreed to discard their plans to take over women’s shelters, our partners in Afghanistan have informed Equality Now that details are not finalized and a number of outstanding questions remain. Please continue to call on the Afghan government to withdraw the proposed Bill and on donor countries to listen to the concerns Afghan women’s rights activists.
Equality Now is deeply concerned about a proposed Bill by the government of Afghanistan that would relegate women’s shelters, currently being operated by several independent women’s organizations, to the management of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA). The draft regulations for the shelters propose unwarranted government control over the acceptance, regime and release of women seeking the protection at these shelters, including compulsory forensic and medical examinations of women and girls seeking admittance and cumbersome restrictions on admitted women leaving the shelter.
Given the Afghan government’s abysmal track record on women’s rights, a government take-over of shelters would have serious implications for Afghan women. According to a 2009 report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), violence against women is widespread and “much of this violence is perpetrated within the family; however, local power-brokers, the formal and traditional justice systems, police and prison authorities also play their part in reinforcing social control over women and in condoning such violence.” Additionally, a 2009 joint report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the OHCHR, states that “Afghan women have repeatedly reported that they have lost faith in the law enforcement and judicial institutions that they consider ineffective, incompetent, dysfunctional and corrupt. Referring an incident to the police, the national directorate of security (i.e., the intelligence service) or a prosecutor is said to be of no avail; cases are usually not taken seriously, properly recorded or acted upon. Ultimately, authorities are not willing or are not in a position to provide women at risk with any form of protection to ensure their safety”. Until the government of Afghanistan takes steps to address these issues, women will not trust government-run shelters to provide them with the safety and support they need.
Currently shelters are run by NGOs that are committed to fighting for justice for the women in the shelters and are providing much needed services to such women. The proposed regulations contain no provisions to provide such legal, social, medical, psychological or rehabilitative services and there is a fear that they would operate more like prisons than places of support. In supporting the government take-over, MoWA accuses women’s groups of corruption. However, human rights advocates are concerned that the main motivation behind the government’s move is to appease conservative forces within the country who want control over women maintained. Speaking to the press on 17 February in Kabul, Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, asserted that former militia commanders within the president’s inner circle were behind the government’s crackdown on women’s shelters. “We believe people operating above the law will influence decisions about women in shelters,” she said. The director of Women for Afghan Women, Manizha Naderi, who runs shelters for abused women in Afghanistan and on average assists 1200 women a year, believes that: “MoWA does not have the capacity to run women’s shelters. Furthermore, as an arm of the government itself dependent on that body for its survival, MoWA lacks the independence and the will to stand up for women’s rights against an increasingly conservative regime.”
Following widespread criticism, President Karzai has reportedly stated that the government will not take over all shelters but rather only the few accused of corruption and found in violation of the established standards and the rules and regulations. However, this is not reflected in the language of the proposed Bill and concrete steps to withdraw the Bill have not been taken.
The international donor community plays a key developmental role in Afghanistan, including in helping to rebuild institutions of state. While the donor community has expressed commitment to the rights of Afghan women, such commitment is not always matched by action. Women’s groups in Afghanistan have advocated that support from the international community should depend on the rights of women being upheld. The Brussels Proclamation issued by Afghan women leaders at the Afghan Women’s Summit for Democracy as early as December 2001 recommended that “all support, including monetary, from the international community [should be] conditional on the rights and treatment of women.” In December 2010, at a European Parliament meeting on strengthening the role of women MPs in stabilizing and transforming Afghanistan held in Brussels, Afghan women MPs called for the international donor community to support Afghan women and prioritize women’s rights in their funding. Donor countries need to listen to this repeated plea and hold each other and the government of Afghanistan accountable for their international commitments, including by adopting “measures that ensure the protection of and respect for [the] human rights of women and girls” as provided for by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which highlights the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and in peace-building.
Please contact the Afghan officials below calling on them to withdraw the proposed Bill and ensure that Afghan women who need shelter have a safe place to go where they will get the support they need. Ask also that the government of Afghanistan takes strong steps to live up to its Constitutional and international commitments, including under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to ensure equality for women and access to justice. Please also write to the main donors to Afghanistan asking them to heed the voices of Afghan women in supporting women’s rights in the country.
Letters should be addressed to:
President Hamid Karzai
Gul Khana Palace
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org  (if you get an error message, can also send care of Feroz Mohmand, Executive Assistant to the President Spokesperson email@example.com .)
Dr Husn Banu Ghazanfar
Minister of Women Affairs
Ministry of Women’s Affairs
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org 
Professor Habibullah Ghalib
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
Email: email@example.com 
Tel: + 93 20 2100 322
Dear President Karzai/Minister Habibullah Ghalib/ Minister Husn Banu Ghazanfar [delete as appropriate]
I write to you with deep concern regarding news that the Afghan government has proposed a Bill which would pass the running of women’s shelters in Afghanistan, previously managed by women’s organizations, to the Afghan government. The new draft regulations propose unwarranted government control over the acceptance, regime and release of women seeking the protection of these shelters. This could dissuade already terrified and vulnerable women from seeking help and so risk their further harm or even death. I understand that the government may now be reconsidering its position, which would be welcome news, however reports that Afghan women remain subject to extremely high levels of violence and have restricted access to justice are very worrying.
I was concerned to learn that a joint report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued in 2009 states that “Afghan women have repeatedly reported that they have lost faith in the law enforcement and judicial institutions that they consider ineffective, incompetent, dysfunctional and corrupt. Referring an incident to the police, the national directorate of security (i.e., the intelligence service) or a prosecutor is said to be of no avail; cases are usually not taken seriously, properly recorded or acted upon. Ultimately, authorities are not willing or are not in a position to provide women at risk with any form of protection to ensure their safety”. This also underlines the critical need for independently-run shelters to give women the support they need.
I respectfully urge you to ensure that the plans to take over these shelters are immediately discarded. Rather, the Afghan government must be encouraged to take strong steps to address the underlying reasons why women and girls in Afghanistan are compelled to go to women’s shelters to seek security and support. This would include ensuring violence against women is prevented and punished to the full extent of the law and providing women full access to justice in accordance with Afghanistan’s Constitutional and international commitments, including under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Thank you for your attention.