Safe Houses for Afghan Women

A cleric says women’s shelters reflect Islamic values, but some men resent them.

Safe houses for women fleeing violence or forced marriage exist in a number of Afghan provinces, and exist in the face of hostility from conservatives who believe “morality” is strictly a matter for the family.

There are only a dozen or so shelters across Afghanistan, including one in Kapisa province in the northeast. Saifora, who heads the provincial department for women’s affairs, says that while such refuges do not have legal powers to protect those who come there, the fact that they exist and that their doors are open offers hope to the victims of sexual and domestic violence. 

Maulavi Abdullah Abid, the provincial government’s head of religious affairs, agreed that shelters were an essential resource for women who could not access the justice system. The argued that compassion was highly valued in Islam. These safe houses provided a resource for those women who were otherwise unable to access justice, and the principle of humanity behind them was an Islamic value.

Saifora and Abid were speaking at one of a series of debates which IWPR held recently in Kapisa and in Kunduz, Daikondi and Nimruz provinces, at which people were invited to discuss the role of women’s refuges and how they should develop.

In Kunduz to the north of Kapisa, a woman called Mumtaz described how she was saved by going to a shelter there three years ago. After her father rejected a marriage proposal, the man concerned turned up at the house with a group of armed accomplices and threw acid on Mumtaz’s face.

“After that incident, I had to seek asylum in the women’s shelter. Thanks to the [safe] house, I have been sent to India for treatment three times,” she told the audience, adding that without the help she had received, she would not be alive now.

Shafiqa Separ of the Kunduz branch of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), said that before there were safe houses, women used to seek refuge at a village mosque or at the house of a community elder. Their problems were not addressed and they were left vulnerable to violence.

Some speakers at the debates expressed suspicion and outright opposition to providing places of refuge.

“Women’s shelters encourage women to flee their homes and seek asylum,” said Abdul Hakim Nasrat-Elahi, a civil society activist in Kapisa.

In Nimroz in western Afghanistan, Khalil Ahmad Azizi, a legal advisor to women’s shelters, cited the example of a woman who turned up regularly for frivolous reasons. “When we ask her what kind of cruelty it is, she says her husband tells her to go and make food for him, but she doesn’t want to,” he said.

In Kunduz, Separ dismissed suggestions that the existence of shelters encouraged women to run away from home.

“Such comments are nothing but rumours,” she said.

Afghan women who are accused of sexual misconduct, running away from home or refusing to get married are commonly put in prison for “moral crimes”, a vague concept that does not exist in formal law. (See Inside Kabul Women's Jail .)

Another audience member in Kunduz said he had heard stories of sexual abuse inside women’s refuges. Hasina Sarwari, who heads a shelter there, said such claims were lies based on “no evidence”.

This report is based on an ongoing series of debates conducted as part of IWPR’s Afghan Youth and Elections programme.