‘I don’t know where to go’: the uncertain fate of women in Kabul shelters | global development

WithAri was seven years old when her parents died, forcing her to move in with her uncle. But when he died four years later, his widow beat Zari and forced her to work long hours weaving carpets. During her teenage years, Zari attempted suicide.

After attempting suicide, Zari, now 28, moved to a battered women’s shelter. For the past eight years, I’ve held on to the belief that things will get better. I made friends, learned to sew clothes, and eventually taught others to do the same.

But with the Taliban now in control of AfghanistanShe risks losing everything again.

Shortly after the militant group came to power in mid-August, ending the US-led war, the small refuge sent many of its residents home. Only Zari and four other women are left without a family.

Overnight, the unmarked building in the Afghan capital transformed from her haven into a dangerous place. “(The staff) curse us, and tell us, ‘Your life is in your hands. You can go anywhere you want. I am afraid. “I don’t know where to go,” said Zari, who spoke to the Guardian on the condition that we don’t use her real name.

The shelter is one of about 30 such facilities in Afghanistan. Established over the past twenty years, they have served as a discreet and often subtle part of the international community’s commitment to promoting Afghan women’s rights. Most of the women’s cases were resolved within months, but some spent years in the shelter, learning new skills so they could reintegrate into society.

Over the past six weeks, this crucial lifeline has almost disappeared. Most of the shelters closed at the request of Taliban, meaning that the women were brought home, often taken back to their abusers, or taken to secret places. For those still in business, like Zari, the future is uncertain. Of the three shelter managers who spoke to the Guardian, none of them received new women.

Women and their children in Pul Sharqi prison in Kabul last week.
Women and their children in Pul Sharqi prison in Kabul last week. When the Taliban took control of Pul-e-Charkhi, 20 women in the only shelter in the north of the city were given a choice: return to their abused families, or go to the abandoned women’s section of Pul-e-Charkhi. Photo: Felipe Dana/The Associated Press

The fate of the shelters symbolizes the struggle for gender equality and the ability to tackle violence against women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Islamist group closed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the headquarters of its “morality police”, established an all-male government in it and banned girls from attending secondary schools. Human Rights Watch She has documented Taliban abuses against women since they took power, including searching for eminent women, compulsory dress codes, and denial of freedom of movement outside their homes.

Mehbooba SirajA veteran women’s rights activist and director of a shelter for 30 women in Kabul says the Taliban are still thinking about what to do about women’s shelters. “They are afraid that the women will leave the shelters, end up on the streets and enter prostitution, which is very possible,” she says by phone from Kabul. “And they don’t want that.”

Two weeks ago, 15 Taliban police officers, including the secret police, visited the Siraj shelter over the course of several days, pointed out the names of residents and snooped around. Siraj said the women were wearing headscarves so that they would not be recognized.

Siraj told the Taliban that their visit was exceptional – the man had never crossed the threshold of her sanctuary before. ‘They looked at me as if they didn’t believe me.’ And a policeman asked, ‘Even the Americans?’ I laughed and said, ‘Neither Afghani nor American. Period.’ Why they thought the Americans visited is a far cry from me.”

Now Siraj, the 73-year-old founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella rights group, wants to know what the Taliban are planning for abused women. Even before the group seized power, Afghanistan regularly topped the list of countries with the weakest protections for women.

The problems of women in Afghanistan are the same as they were before the Taliban came to power. Women are still abused and still have abusive families and are still addicted to drugs.” Despite the landmark 2009 law on eliminating violence against women, more than half of Afghan women reported being physically abused and who were married, 59% of whom were In a forced marriage, according to Government Studies.

The past 20 years have demonstrated how important protection services are to Afghan society, said Kevin Schumacher, deputy executive director of Women for African Women, a Washington-based nonprofit that operates the largest network of shelters in the country. “Next time there is a flagrant violation of human rights…and the victim is a woman, where are you going? Society does not operate based on our ideological views. If the Taliban want to run a country, they have to have answers to these very real social needs.”

A 17-year-old girl holds her one-month-old son at a women's shelter in Kabul in 2017
A 17-year-old girl holds her one-month-old son at a women’s shelter in Kabul in 2017. Run by the charity Women for Afghan Women, the shelter provides sanctuary in a country where rape, abuse and forced marriage are common. Photo: Rebecca Conway/AFP/Getty

However, this is not the first time that Afghan women are at risk of losing their safe homes. The former US-backed government I tried again To put the shelters under her control, describing them as corrupt brothels full of addicted women. In 2011, the government wanted women entering shelters to be subjected to baseless and degrading “virginity tests.” International Donors Funding Refugees successfully blocked takeover.

The US State Department, which splits shelter funding with the United Nations, estimates that about 2,000 women and girls—most of them in Kabul—use the shelters each year. A US State Department spokesperson said it spends $11m (£8m) on shelters annually.

It is now unclear what kind of funding, if any, the shelters can expect. Afghanistan is preparing for an economic collapse and a humanitarian catastrophe, to which the worst drought in decades is added. During the NATO-led war, foreign aid bolstered the Afghan economy, and its fate will now depend on whether or not the Taliban can garner support from its former enemies. despite of The Taliban’s appeal to the United Nations last week For the sake of legality, no country has recognized its government.

Earlier this month, the United Nations was able to secure $1.2 billion in emergency support for Afghanistan, but there is no guarantee that this money will be gender-sensitive. 2019 report by International Rescue Committee It found that only 0.2% of global humanitarian funding from 2016 to 2018 addressed gender-based violence.

“As donors look to try to stem the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, they should remember to put some of that effort into specifically helping women,” said Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “As the Taliban cut off so much of women’s ability to earn a living, it is also important to provide protection services, as much as possible, to women and girls facing violence.”

A woman walks in front of beauty salons with defaced window decorations in Kabul, Afghanistan
Since the Taliban takeover, images of women advertising beauty salons have been removed or covered up. Photo: Bernat Armangué / AP

When a shelter in Kabul that once housed 80 women closed during the Taliban’s takeover of power, his cook lost her income as well as a way to support her extended family. “My mother and I were the breadwinners of the family, but now we are sitting at home, not knowing how we are going to live,” says the 30-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since last year she has been cooking twice a day, receiving £190 a month and being independent from her abusive husband, who was addicted to crystal methamphetamine. Her mother, who was a cook at another shelter funded by the same Western NGO, also lost her job.

“Now that I’m locked up in my house, I’m struggling a lot, both mentally and financially,” says the daughter. She fears for her two daughters, who were due to enter high school next year. “As an illiterate Afghan woman, I used to work to help my two daughters go to school but now they can’t even get an education.”

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