At a secret women’s shelter in Kabul, a mother with sad brown eyes who fled with five children all born after relatives raped her explains her fears over Afghan government plans to take over the refuges.
The 28-year-old left her home in Laghman Province, east Afghanistan, three months ago and now lives at the shelter, which keeps its windows whitewashed and curtains drawn so neighbors do not guess what it is.
“My husband wasn’t a good person and all the time he was out and we didn’t have any food. When I told my husband’s father and his brother to bring food, they abused me,” she said while breastfeeding her youngest, aged six weeks.
She plucked up the courage to flee her home, but now her father-in-law has followed her to Kabul to try and force her to come back, she said.
“He came to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and said ‘I want the children.’ I’m very worried about this,” she explained, speaking on condition of anonymity because of safety fears.
Her story highlights concerns among activists that plans, announced last week, for the women’s ministry to take control all 14 of Afghanistan’s women’s shelters will make it easier for abusers to track down their victims.
The move has drawn criticism from the US as well as rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Activists said government-run shelters are more likely to yield to pressure from families to hand back abused women than if they are run by independent non--governmental organizations, as is currently the case.
HRW has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government of making the announcement under pressure from powerful conservative, religious elements in Afghan society.
“The government is increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives who are hostile to the very idea of shelters since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members,” HRW’s Afghanistan researcher Rachel Reid said.
Shafika Noori of NGO Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA) said the new rules would force women to appear before an official committee and face intimate forensic examinations before being admitted to shelters.
“When the women are with us, we can make them safe, but when it belongs to the ministry, we think they will give back the women to those people [abusive families] and there will be a deal between the influential people and the ministry,” she said.
She and the 28-year-old rape victim are speaking at a HAWCA-run shelter, which was forced to move a few days ago after a controversial national TV show threatened to broadcast the location of all safe houses.
The same show previously suggested that women’s shelters acted as a front for prostitution.
In fact, most residents end up at shelters because they face domestic violence or are forced to get married while still children, Noori said.
Another resident, who did not know her age, but said it was “less than 20,” told of how she fled from war-torn Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan because her brothers disapproved of her lover.
“I wanted to marry him but when I told my brothers, they didn’t accept it and they beat me,” she said, scars still visible on her arms.
The man bought her a mobile phone so they could stay in touch, but her brothers heard about this, she added.
“When my older brother found out, he said: ‘Now I don’t want to beat her, I want to hang her tonight.’”