Threats and fear destroy Afghan women’s protections overnight


It took years for Women for Afghan Women to build Afghanistan’s largest network of women’s protection services – 32 shelters, family guidance centers and children’s homes in 14 provinces, growing by mouth by ear and motivated by the intense need for their services.

They began closing their doors within days as the Taliban began their lightning advance through Afghan cities on August 6. were coming.

Very few shelter managers – not only those affiliated with Women for Afghan Women, but also a handful of other long-established shelters – chose to stay where they were, but remained silent, fearing that all that was they would say could harm the women they care for. No one accepts new cases.

“Our shelters, our centers for the protection of women, have disappeared. It is very unlikely that most of the work that we do for women, we will be able to do as we have done, ”said Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women.

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan ranked low on every list when it comes to protecting women and leading in terms of the need for shelters, counseling and courts that could help keep women safe.

More than half of all Afghan women reported physical abuse and 17 percent reported sexual violence, while nearly 60 percent were in forced marriages as opposed to arranged marriages, according to studies cited by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs – and underreporting is rampant.

Honor killings, child marriages, the payment of a dowry for a woman and the practice of baad – the trade in young girls to pay the debts of elders, which is the equivalent of selling a child into slavery – are still produce in rural areas. Everywhere, harassment of women in the workplace and in public is a constant, as is psychological violence, according to recent studies.

As the insurgency progressed, the first concern of Women for Afghan Women staff and others running similar shelters was what the Taliban could do to punish them. As rulers of the country in the 1990s, the Taliban vigorously opposed women traveling alone or dating.

Relatively recent examples of Taliban conduct are disturbing. When the Taliban briefly took control of Kunduz town in 2015, the operators of Women for Afghan Women shelters and their clients all fled as threatening appeals poured in from insurgents. The director of the shelter described being actively hunted and said she was receiving calls from the Taliban saying they were going to capture her and hang her in the village square as an example.

But it wasn’t just the fear of the Taliban that scared the shelter operators and their clients this time around. Taliban fighters have visited some of the shelters in recent weeks. Sometimes they vandalized the premises and took over the buildings, but there were no reports that they harmed anyone, said Ms Viswanath, co-founder of the group.

“None of our staff has been beaten, attacked, killed, as far as I know,” she said.

Much of the concern came from the waves of prisoners released during the Taliban’s advance. Among them were men imprisoned under women’s protection laws that have been enacted with Western support over the past 20 years. The former inmates hold a grudge not only against the relative who spoke out against them and publicly humiliated them, but also against all those who supported this effort – the directors of the shelters, the counselors and the lawyers.

A woman from rural Baghlan province, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she has received death threats, described how she now changes where she sleeps every few nights. Previously, she had worked with prosecutors to help gather evidence of abuse in cases involving women.

“After capturing towns, the Taliban freed all the prisoners. Among these prisoners, there were some who were sentenced because of my work, ”she said. “Now they threaten me and there is no government or system to go to seek shelter. I’m just hiding in one place or another.

Shelters have long been targets. For many in Afghanistan’s harshly patriarchal society – not just the Taliban – a woman who is alone or who leaves her family is often seen as a prostitute. Some see shelters for battered women as thin disguises for brothels.

Over the past 15 years, however, despite society’s antagonism towards protections for women, more have begun to seek refuge. Often with horrific wounds – broken bones or internal wounds from severe beatings – the women knocked again and again on anonymous doors or ordinary houses where women’s aid groups welcomed people.

The continuation of these operations is firmly in the hands of the Taliban, who are expected to announce their own laws to govern the conduct of women. This will leave the former Afghan government’s Elimination of Violence Against Women law and other protections on an uncertain basis.

So far, Taliban officials have assured women would be allowed to work and, in some cases, travel without the escort of a male relative – “as permitted by sharia” or Islamic law. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid surprised some when he admitted, after other Taliban officials urged Afghan women to stay in their homes temporarily for their own safety, that they could not be trusted. many Taliban to treat women civilly and they would need to be educated. .

But the Taliban made similar statements after taking control of the capital and most of the country in 1996.

“The explanation was that the security was not good, and they were waiting for the security to be better, and then the women could have more freedom,” said Heather Barr, associate director of women’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “But of course during those years they were in power, that moment never came – and I can promise you the Afghan women hearing it today think it will never happen this time no more.”

For Mahbouba, a longtime activist who has worked to protect Afghan women for much of her life, the picture is not yet clear. But she says she’s giving the Taliban the benefit of the doubt, for now. She has nothing against their claim that everything must be done in accordance with Sharia law because it is the religion of Afghanistan.

But how the Taliban interpret Sharia law will also matter, she said.

“We just have to wait and see what happens. The Taliban haven’t really started anything – check in a month, in two months, in six months, ”she said.

Mahbouba, whom the Times identifies with one name to protect her and her organization, oversees a long-established safe house for women. She hasn’t fled or closed her doors, but she keeps a low profile and calibrates what she says to the media, she said.

When the Taliban recently came into her office saying the women were being held against their will, Mahbouba said she did not let them in, but went out to speak with them.

They told him that they had heard that “some women are being held here”. She rejected this, saying she was instead defending the honor of Afghan women.

“I don’t let them go to the streets to be used and abused by other people; they are the victims of domestic violence, ”she recalls saying. “So instead of running away and making them prostitute, I have kept their honor and I keep them safe.”

The Taliban appeared to accept this explanation and Mahbouba said she was determined to engage with them.

But she also made a request: please, she said, “keep watching, and if our world is going haywire and it’s getting really terrible, we can let people know.”

A New York Times employee contributed reporting.

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