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Women "more vulnerable than ever" - the closure of Afghanistan's safehouses

With most women's refuges shut down across the country, survivors of gender violence - and former employees - are left with nowhere to turn.


9 Mar 2022

"Women in Bagram, Afghanistan" by United Nations Photo is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It took years for Afghanistan’s women’s safehouses to open, but as the Taliban advanced last August, it took days for them to close. According to Human Rights Watch, in recent months the Taliban has “systematically” shut shelters for women and girls escaping violent and abusive partners.

While shelters were struggling before the group’s resurgence, the services that did exist offered a beacon of hope for women and girls escaping gender violence in Afghanistan, a country where 9 out of 10 women experience at least one form of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.

AW spoke to former employees of several women’s shelters, who said that survivors have been forced back to the homes they had originally fled from, or have been left with nowhere to go. Despite multiple attempts, AW could not talk to the survivors themselves due to concerns around their safety. AW has also kept the names and identities of any interviewees involved in this article confidential.

Before the Taliban

There is limited data on the exact number of women’s shelters in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s return, but the largest network of women’s protection services was run by Women for Afghan Women, and consisted of 32 safe houses, family guidance centres and children’s homes in 14 provinces. There were also safehouses run by a small number of other organisations, with funding for most split between the US state department and the United Nations (UN).

The US state department previously estimated that 2,000 women and girls - mainly in Kabul - used the shelters each year, with many referred into the system from provincial and capital offices of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Human Rights Commission, as well as from shelters, hospitals, and police stations across Afghanistan.

According to service providers interviewed by Amnesty International, the most common cases of gender-based violence experienced by service users involved beating, rape, other forms of physical and sexual violence, and forced marriage, with survivors often requiring urgent medical treatment.

While the system was far from perfect - interviewees told AW that before the Taliban takeover, funding for shelters had already decreased - the services served thousands of women every year, with survivors of gender violence able to seek refuge and legal aid, as well as access education and work opportunities.

Women sent back to homes of abusers

As Taliban forces began to rapidly advance across Afghanistan last summer, women’s organisations held their breath. Directors of women’s shelters told the media that in the weeks prior to the capture of Kabul, Taliban fighters had vandalised and taken over some shelters.

Women’s organisations were also concerned about the waves of prisoners set free as the Taliban advanced across the country. Their main concern were men who had been imprisoned under women’s protection laws enacted with western support - former prisoners who were now seeking revenge on not only the survivors, but the directors of the safehouses, lawyers and counsellors who had helped hold them to account. One interviewee who worked at a safehouse told AW how she was so scared that she relocated to a relatives’ address, destroyed documents concerning her work, and now seldom leaves the house. “I barely get out, and if I do, I fully cover myself,” she says.

According to a former manager of a women’s shelter, in the weeks and days preceding the Taliban takeover, safehouses and offices were “rapidly wrapped up and closed down”, and some felt they had no option but to hastily send some of the women back to their abusive families. “The shelters could not even secure guarantee letters [to promise the women would not be harmed] from the women’s families,” she told AW. She added that women with no families to return to were left on their own, and that some urged shelters to release them as they feared that if they stayed, “the Taliban would kill them.”

The women AW interviewed said that some service users had been put into female prisons, some were sent back to abusive families, and others can no longer be accounted for. Almost all of the interviewees said that they could no longer keep in touch with the survivors and former residents of the safehouses.

One interviewee told AW that while most of the women’s shelters have closed down, some lesser-known organisations have still been running secretly but are unable to accept newcomers. She added that some women’s transitional houses - which accommodate women who have recently been released from prison - have remained open, but that they may be forced to close down due to Taliban threats and lack of funding and support. Another interviewee AW spoke to cast doubt on the claim that some transitional houses and shelters were still operating.

“I was not in a position to help her”

Many former employees of women’s shelters feel their hands are tied in the current situation. A former manager of a prominent women’s shelter told AW that she had heard from a 19-year-old girl who told her that she had been forced to marry a 70-year-old man and had fled from Baghlan to Kabul.

“I told the girl that, unfortunately, I was not in a position to help her and nor did we have any safe places to keep her. I advised her to go to one of her relative’s houses and try to get the matter resolved through the elders of the area,” she told AW. “I later learned that the girl's husband and brother-in-law, together with two Taliban fighters, came to the house of the girl’s relative and viciously took her back to Baghlan. The neighbour could hear her screams, and one mediated and asked the men not to beat her and [to] take her peacefully.”

In December, the Taliban announced that they were banning forced marriage of women in Afghanistan, but customs such as forced marriage and honour killings have long predated the Taliban, and selling girls to pay family debts took place across the country even under the former government, who had outlawed such practices. Charities fear that the dwindling economic situation, compounded by the Covid-19 crisis and the worst drought in decades, has forced families to make even more desperate decisions such as selling their daughters - some reportedly as young as 20 days - just to be able to eat.

For Afghanistan’s survivors of gender violence, not only have they lost access to shelter, security and support, but they have also been cut-off from support systems that existed previously. One interviewee, who led an organisation specifically focused on women’s access to justice, told AW that the situation for women’s shelters had been worsened by the removal of several institutions that previously worked to protect women’s rights, such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which has been replaced by the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, responsible for enforcing the Taliban's strict interpretation of Sharia law, which has included recent restrictions on women’s education, freedom of movement, and access to work.

In November, the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s Independent Bar Association (AIBA) and a Taliban cabinet directive stripped the AIBA of powers to licence lawyers, instructing prior licence holders to re-apply to the Ministry of Justice. The interviewee added that the move will disproportionately restrict women’s “access to justice”. She says that while access to women’s services has been restricted, the need for them is stronger than ever: “With the economic downturn and humanitarian crisis in the country, Afghan women are more vulnerable than ever to domestic violence. However, now there is not a single organisation in the country to address such cases.”

“I live in fear and uncertainty”

According to a former employee of an international women’s organisation, some former residents of the shelters have been evacuated from the country and are currently in neighbouring countries, waiting to travel to Germany along with employees of the organisation. “Women who had no families were secretly taken to the houses of the employees, and they hid there for some time,” she told AW. “After a while, along with the employees, they were all evacuated to a neighbouring country, and the German government accepted their visa applications.”

Although some employees and service users have been evacuated or have fled to neighbouring countries, many could not leave Afghanistan, and remain in hiding. One woman AW spoke to previously worked for a women’s shelter and was responsible for monitoring houses in provinces such as Kunar, Faryab and Kuduz. She told AW that last August some of her colleagues who worked in administrative positions were evacuated from the country, but she was left behind - despite the high-risk nature of her work.

The former employees AW spoke to said they have received threats and have changed their contact numbers and whereabouts several times in the past seven months. “I live in fear and uncertainty,” one told AW. “I continuously think that the Taliban might enter my house, kill me or take me away.”

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