Afghan government to take over women shelters

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: The Afghan government announced this week that it's taking over the running of women's shelters. Until now, the shelters were run by foreign and Afghan non-governmental organizations. They were set up along the same model as women shelters in the United States, places to protect women from domestic violence. The BBC's Quentin Sommerville is in Kabul. Why is the Afghan government taking over these shelters?

Quentin Sommerville: It seems to be about money. Yesterday, I met the minister for women's affairs and she said a huge amount of money is being spent on these 11 shelters, which house about 210 women across Afghanistan. Many millions of dollars are being spent and she says the Afghan government can spend that money far better and far more efficiently. So we went to one of those shelters to see for ourselves.

[Sound of car being driven] On my way to a women's shelter in Kabul. See Christie, it's so important that we're traveling there, not in our own car, but in a car organized by the shelter, because for some of these women, their lives depend on the fact that their families don't know where they're being kept.

[Sound of sewing machine] Inside, the women are working to rebuild their lives. That a sewing machine deal out handicrafts under the skills, but mostly this safe house offers them protection. In a corner, her hands fidgeting nervously, a woman we'll call Marian, tells me her story.

Marian's Interpreter: My husband was beating me all the time. He was a former Taliban commander and very violent. He tried to force me into prostitution. I have two of my children here with me. My oldest boy's with my husband. He took him by force.

Sommerville: Many of the women here have been through horrible abuse. This safe house offers them, and their children, sanctuary. But, in this conservative Muslim society, there is an innate suspicion of these places. Some Afghan politicians have said that they're drug dens. Others have accused them of being brothels. The shelter's manager, who won't give her name, denies the claim.

Managers Interpreter: It is good that you have seen this shelter for yourself. No woman leaves this house illiterate. We put pressure on them to get educated here and stand on their own two feet. We've had women who were addicts when they came here and we treated them and reintegrated them back to normal life.

Sommerville: In one of the classrooms, they're learning to write. There's plenty of encouragement as a woman writes her name for the first time. [sound of applause] But the fear is that when the government takes control of these shelters, their secrecy will be compromised. The police force, mistrusted by many, will be given the job of shelter security. That could be enough to deter a woman from entering safe houses.

Mullins: Quentin, the women who you saw there, you said that the prospect of police taking over the sites could mean that they would be deterred from entering the safe houses. What do they actually believe would change, if Kabul did indeed take over these shelters?

Sommerville: There's a suspicion that the motivation, this change in government policy, is because the government is bowing to conservative pleasure within the society that are more hard lined, Islamic stance is taking hold. And that means that women, any sign of independence from women, has to be controlled and has to be quashed in many senses. It was very interesting listening to the minister for women's affairs, who didn't really speak much about the women and spoke mainly about the money and seemed very suspicious of many of the women who'd sought shelter in these places.

Mullins: This is the government minister who would be in charge of the shelters themselves?

Sommerville: Indeed, the minister for women's affairs. And the very fact that the police, who most Afghan's don't trust, they believe that are corrupt, they believe are violent, that they would be responsible for shelter security, that really sends a shiver down the spine of many of the people involved in these shelters. There's also a worry that, this is a society and indeed a government, which has former warlords, in it former commandos from the northern alliance, who do not have a great track record in protecting women's rights and, in a sense, they've been given the keys to these shelters.

Mullins: And so, would they be the ones to actually run the shelters? Would the existing staff be replaced?

Sommerville: We don't have the details of how the government plans to take this over. In the broader context, there's a process going on right now called Afghanization. Afghanistan is trying to stand on its own two feet, it's trying to take control of the country, rather than having it run by the United States, the International Security and Assistance Forcing, and NGO 's, Non Governmental Organizations. This is part of this process says the Afghan government. They believe that they have the wit, they have the ability to be able to take control of these shelters. What it will mean in practical terms, we don't know yet. We know at least that there will be a representative from the women's ministry in every one of these 11 shelters.

Mullins: As you mentioned, they believe, at least they accuse, some of the shelter operators of operating drug dens or brothels. Have any of those accusations ever been born out?

Sommerville: When I spoke to the minister for women's affairs, yes. I asked her directly that question. I said, ââ?¬Å?Do you have any evidence of drug abuse or prostitution?ââ?¬  She said no, absolutely none whatsoever. But she, like others in the government, have repeated those rumors and allowed them to circulate.

Mullins: Quentin, one final question. I'm surprised that they allowed you into the shelter at all, but I'm wondering, beyond that portrait that we just heard, what it was like to be there?

Sommerville: It was heartbreaking. The women were terrified. Not only did we do this story for radio, we did it for television. Every woman, of course, hid her face and they fidgeted nervously. They finally thought they found a place of safety and they know that even there, they aren't safe. And the great tragedy of this is that they maybe made less safe because of their own government.

Mullins: From Kabul, BBC's Quentin Sommerville. Thank you.

Sommerville: Thank you.