Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grassroots Demands for Afghan Women's Refuge

Women fleeing domestic violence in Khost currently have to throw themselves on the mercy of police or community elders.
By Ahmad Shah, Mina Habib

For Afghan women fleeing domestic violence or forced marriage, there exists a handful of safe houses scattered across a number of provinces. Campaigners in Khost, a small southeastern province, are now calling for a refuge to serve vulnerable women in their own region.

Naat Bibi Omari, an activist and former provincial councillor, was among some 200 women who gathered at a public meeting at a girls’ school in Khost city in September to demand the creation of a shelter.

Women facing forced marriage or domestic abuse had few options, she said. If they ran away and asked for help from the police, they would invariably be returned home. Under Afghan law, women in these situations can only remain in custody for 48 hours. Omari said that police sometimes tried to find them a place of refuge with community elders, but that was not a long-term solution, either.

“A few days ago, a policeman told me that a woman had run away from her home. He asked me, ‘Please take her to your home,’” Omari said. “I told him that as a Pashtun woman, I could take her to my house for a few days, but not forever, because the families of these women usually hunt them down and try to kill them. No one can take on such a huge responsibility.”

Afghan women who are accused of sexual misconduct, running away from home or refusing to get married are commonly accused of “moral crimes”, a vague concept that does not exist in formal law.

Haji Hamim Mangal, a tribal leader, told the meeting that he was often asked to intervene in such situations.

“Just a few minutes ago, I received a call from police headquarters to say a woman had run away from home and was now there. They said I should come and take her [to my] home,” he said. “What should I do? People would gossip and badmouth me if I were to host strange women at home. It’s no solution for a woman to stay at my house for a day and then go to a different house for another day. Khost needs a dedicated women’s shelter.”

Guldad Mandozai, the head of the criminal investigations with the Khost police, said the lack of shelters presented his officers with a real problem.

“We have a great many cases referred to us, and we can’t keep these women in police headquarters. I think it’s essential to set up a women’s shelter,” he said.

Malalai Wali, head of the women’s affairs department in Khost, said another option was to send women to the capital Kabul. “That entails a lot of problems,” she added. “There are dangers created by the families of these women, the security difficulties, and red tape which takes a long time. That’s why we need to a shelter in Khost.”

Zeba Barakzai, head of the Khost branch of the Afghan Women’s Network, said women desperately seeking help were vulnerable to further abuse.

“Three years ago, a woman who ran away from home because of violence was caught by her family and murdered. Similarly, another woman who escaped from Pakistan and – due to the lack of a safe house – sought refuge in the home of a security official, was raped by both the father and his son there,” she said.

According to the women’s affairs ministry, there are now 26 shelters across the country, housing some 600 women and girls. Even though numbers are tiny, conservatives argue that the mere existence of such shelters leads to family breakdown. They believe “morality” is a strictly private matter.

In 2012, the then Afghan justice minister, Habibullah Ghaleb, told female parliamentarians that shelters were “centres of prostitution”. He later apologised after coming under a barrage of criticism from human rights groups.

Similar views are held by some residents of Khost. Abdullah, an Islamic scholar, said that women’s shelters were part of a Western plot to corrupt Afghan society. He argued that domestic violence would disappear if people adhered to true Islamic values.

“There is no doubt that the way women are currently treated in our society is un-Islamic,” he said. “Efforts must be made to solve these problems within the framework of Islamic and Afghan precepts and customs.”

Ayub Maiwand, the governor of Khost’s Tanai district, also opposes the creation of a women’s refuge. He believes it will encourage women to run away from home, and lead to family feuds.

“At the moment, women just have to put up with their difficulties. If the shelter gets built, women will run away from home over even minor issues,” he said. “That will breed animosity between her family and her husband’s.”

But a consensus seems to be building in favour of creating a safe house for vulnerable women.

“When a woman is beaten up or threatened with death for wanting to exercise her rights, what is she supposed to do?” asked Gul Bibi, a female resident of Khost. “If there is a shelter, she will definitely be able to seek help, so it needs to be built.”

Nasratullah Tasal, a male resident of Khost city, added, “I think a shelter could save the lives of many women.”

In Khost, the main obstacle to setting up a refuge seems to stem from disagreement about who is responsible for doing so.

Bostan Walizai, who heads the Civil Society and Human Rights Network in southeast Afghanistan, said despite repeated requests, he had been unable to extract any promises from the provincial authorities.

Wali, the head of the provincial women’s affairs department, said plans for a shelter had been approved by central government and the funding agreed with the United States embassy in Kabul.

She claimed that Khost’s elected provincial council was trying to block implementation of the project.

That was denied by council chairman Amirullah Zra Swand, who said the women’s affairs department had never so much as raised the subject with him.

“I too want shelters for women who are left with no other choice but to run away from home,” he said.

Nazia Faizi, the head of the central government department responsible for women’s refuges nationwide, said they were built according to where they were needed, and no formal request had come from Khost.

“Neither the Khost department for women’s affairs nor any other institution has asked for a shelter to be built in Khost province thus far,” Faizi said. “If they want one, we are ready to offer any help we can.”

The deputy governor of Khost, Abdul Wahid Patan, said the provincial government would fully support any initiative by the ministry in Kabul.

“If the women’s affairs ministry allocates a budget for it, we will provide the land, and we'll deal with any other problems that arise,” he said.

Ahmad Shah is an IWPR-trained reporter in Khost. Mina Habib is an IWPR reporter in Kabul.

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiative, funded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.