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No safety under Taliban for Afghan women fleeing domestic violence

An Afghan woman looks out the window of a bus. Safe houses for women have been shut under the Taliban, raising fears about women’s protections to domestic violence. (Keystone/AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

Progress made in recent years towards protecting Afghan women’s rights and providing accountability for violence against women and girls has been undermined by the Taliban’s rise to power. Domestic violence is particularly prevalent in Afghanistan but a lack of financial dependency is one of the key obstacles preventing Afghan women from seeking help. Those who do often flee to women’s shelters for safety from abusive family members. But since the Taliban took control on 15 August, most of these safe houses have been closed, with women forced to return home or face arrest.

Farida is a mother of four children living in Kabul. For a long time, she has been subjected to physical violence by her husband but she cannot even talk about the abuse to her parents.

“I have been married for ten years. My husband is violent and addicted to drugs,” she says. “He always beats me, but I cannot complain to anyone, not even to my parents. Because if I complain, my husband will kick me out of the house. If that happens, my children and I will be homeless and will have nothing to eat.”

Afghanistan is a conservative society where women are often confronted with old patriarchal traditions. Men are viewed as the main income earners for the family and women are generally seen as the homemakers. Therefore, it is believed that women do not need to be financially independent, as her husband or father will support her. Most women are forced to rely on financial support from men to survive.

The domestic violence rate is also extremely high in Afghanistan, with women frequently physically, psychologically and sexually abused by their family members. According to an evaluation by the Afghan Ministry of Women’s Affairs, more than half of all Afghan women reported experiencing at least one type of physical, sexual or psychological violence between 2016-2020, and more than 60 per cent were married without their consent.

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Most Afghan girls do not have the right to choose their future husband themselves and instead have to marry a man who is chosen by her family.

Officially complaining about family violence or speaking out at all to family members or acquaintances has always been complicated for Afghan women. Those who filed complaints against their family or who didn't feel secure at home often took refuge at women’s protection centres and shelters across the country. But since the Taliban took control in mid-August, these safe-houses for women have been closed, both in Kabul and the provinces. The Taliban asked women who had been living in the safe-houses, alone or with their children, to either return home or go to prison.

An attorney who declined to be named due to security concerns described the Taliban's decision as illegal and inhumane. “The women who had been living in the safe houses were all oppressed and victims, while the prison is a place for criminals and oppressors. How is it possible then that those who need justice must be sent to prison like criminals?” She said. “Sending them back home could also be risky. If their home was a safe place for these women then why would they take refuge in protection centres? ”

When the Taliban took control in mid-August, they opened the doors of many prisons and released thousands of prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of sexual violence or domestic abuse. This left thousands of victims more vulnerable than ever, with their former attackers on the loose.

Among the released prisoners there were around 800 women along with their children.

Based on a report from the Ministry of Women's Affairs, Afghanistan had 25 shelters in 22 provinces. The US state department estimates that about 2,000 women and girls used the shelters each year.

The idea of ​​women living in protection centres has never been widely accepted in Afghanistan. But by staying in the shelters some women were able to start a new life. They had the chance to learn new skills and access medical, legal and social services.

The situation now facing women who were living in Afghanistan's shelters is deeply worrying. Not only do they fear for their safety from the family members who abused them in the past, but the female prosecutors, judges, and lawyers who had tried to provide them a measure of justice are now hiding in secret locations, also fearing revenge from the Taliban. Who will seek justice for these women?

Dispatches from women in Afghanistan