On 17 June, the Minister of Justice, Habibullah Ghaleb, said that women’s shelters were safe havens for immorality and prostitution. He was later to apologize after stirring up fierce debate in Afghan media and elsewhere about women’s shelters and provoking defences of shelters by activists, the Women’s Affairs Minister and his own deputy. Nevertheless, says AAN’s Sari Kouvo, his harsh words are impossible to take back. The mud, she says, sticks and shelter providers are now having to work, yet again, to convince their fellow Afghans that the most desperate women in society at risk of extreme violence from their relations need these safe havens. (With research assistance by Ehsan Qaane).
There are only a few handful of functioning women’s shelters in Afghanistan. Very few of the many women who face violence in Afghanistan find their way to one. In all the discussions about the shelters I have followed over the years in Afghanistan, they have always been promoted as the last resort. For an Afghan woman, deciding to move away from home often means she will probably never be able to return to her family – and few women manage to live alone in Afghanistan. So moving to a shelter is high risk; this may not be a brief stint in a woman’s life, but a long-term solution.
For this reason, to the extent possible, all those I know who are working with shelters have always tries to encourage solutions closer to home; that the woman moves in with a trusted family member and efforts are taken to mediate within the family. This is not always possible: in extreme cases of violence against women, shelters are the only option.
Establishing and running shelters in Afghanistan has been an uphill battle from the start; and it certainly demands some incredible multi-tasking skills. The women I have met who do this work have to proactively and reactively engage in public debate on issues relating to violence against women and the shelters; work with the Afghan government and justice sector institutions to keep their shelters running, but also to work out solutions for the women living in the shelters; develop the capacity and manage their staff to ensure the shelters do not become prisons for women, but places where they can feel safe, develop and heal; and they have to raise long-term funds in an increasingly complicated donor environment.
The fact that there are even a few women’s shelters in Afghanistan seems to regularly upset Afghan decision-makers. In early 2011, shelters were discussed when the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, sought to gain control over them, in order to clamp down on what she considered the corruption and immorality there (see AAN’s blog about this here). The minister’s actions resulted in a fierce counter-attack by shelter providers, women’s organisations and some donors.
The result was that providers could continue running shelters, but with stricter reporting obligations to and more monitoring by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Commission for the Prevention of Violence against Women (more about the commission here). Two of the shelter providers AAN spoke to said that last year’s reaction by the Minister was due to her not knowing or understanding how the shelters worked and that the relationship with the ministry is now constructive. They said the monitoring has actually helped build confidence between the ministry and the shelters. This may also be the reason why the Minister Ghazanfar and her deputy, Sayeda Muzhgan Mostafawi, came out with such a strong defense of the shelters after the Minister of Justice’s statement.
Yet a year after Ghazanfar became a supporter of shelters, her cabinet colleague, the Minister of Justice, Habibullah Ghaleb, repeated the same calumny. On 17 June, at a meeting of the Women’s Commission of Parliament, he accused women’s organizations of encouraging girls and women to run away from home and that the shelters were safe havens for immorality and prostitution.
Positively enough, some of the first to speak about against the Minister were from his own house. His deputy, Sayed Yusuf Alem, said the minister had no proof for his allegations (Mandegar, 19 June 2012, AAN media monitoring). Among reactions from other high-ranking officials, the Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs, Muzhgan Mustazawi, stressed that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs are regularly monitoring shelters and they have found no proof for any allegations of corruption and immorality (Hasht-e Sobh, 20 June 2012). The head of the criminal investigation department at the Ministry of Interior [of Kabul police], General Muhammad Zaher, also stressed that the shelters were doing a good job protecting girls and women and cooperated with the police (Hasht-e Sobh, 20 June 2012).
Women’s organisations were also quick to speak up, demanding the minister prove his point if he did not want to be sued for slander, and stressing that an apology would not be enough – the minister should resign. This was probably the first time Afghan civil society has demanded that a minister steps down. The shelter providers whom AAN talked to said that, just as with last year’s controversy, it seemed Ghaleb’s comments were based on him not knowing and not understanding how the shelters function. The minister, said one, spoke ‘from his heart, rather than based on facts’. The women AAN spoke to noted that this in itself is worrying: it is unacceptable that, after a decade of work for human and women’s rights in the country he represents, a minister could hold such misogynistic opinions.
The minister’s (sort of) volte-face came speedily. On 18 June, he apologised (on Ariana TV, source: BBC Monitoring), as he did again on 24 June when he was quoted (by Tolonews) as saying that, ‘I again emphasise that if the women, who are my daughters and sisters, have been upset by me, I as their father and older brother apologise, not once, but a thousand times’. Women’s rights activists told AAN they were not convinced by his apology.
Shelter provider, Huma Safi, said:
‘When he apologized, it was not really an apology. He said if my sisters are angry I apologize. It means if you are not angry I do not apologize. In fact, he apologized because of reaction of civil society organizations – not for what he said’.
While it is positive that other government officials spoke out in defense of the shelters and that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs also engaged constructively on this controversial issue, these kinds of attacks show the force of conservative attitudes towards women in Afghanistan. Violence against women is one of the issues at the heart of the ongoing debate on women. The minister’s comments resonate with much of Afghan society and that is what makes them so dangerous – as one of the shelter providers noted:
‘What the minister said has done irreparable damage to the reputation of the shelters. What civil society organisations and women’s rights defenders have attempted to build over ten years was destroyed by the minister in one minute. Public opinion changes easily on these issues in Afghanistan, many Afghans are illiterate, they will believe what a minister says’.
The minister’s remarks, so easily made and so speedily apologised for, are likely, therefore, to result in real suffering for some of Afghanistan’s most desperate – or at least make it more difficult for them to find refuge. As another shelter provider, Mary Akrimy, noted: ‘This will make it again harder for us to create solutions for the women we take care of, to get them back with their families and into life’.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020