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Afghan shelter plan stokes controversy

By David Ariosto and Joe Sterling, CNN
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A haven for Afghan women and kids
  • An Afghan official says the shelters would be "better controlled" under Afghan law
  • An activist says the "government is packed with misogynist warlords"
  • One girl is in a shelter after her stepfather tried to rape her

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Under the cover of darkness, a 9-year-old girl and her mother ran from their stone and mud home on the outskirts of Kabul. They feared the wrath of her stepfather.

"My father was beating me and my mother," said the girl, who to protect her identity will be referred to as simply Zarina. "He would insult my mother and sometimes wouldn't bring us food."

The last straw was an unwanted advance. Zarina, now age 10, said the man tried to rape her. She managed to slip past him and escape.

Zarina and her mother bounced from shelter to shelter before landing in a U.S.-funded women's home back in Kabul, the nation's capital.

Zarina's tale, however, is not unusual in Afghanistan, where women were persecuted under the Taliban regime from the mid-1990s until it was toppled in a U.S. invasion a couple of months after the al Qaeda terror network attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

Observers of Afghanistan noted that abuse of women remains common in the post-Taliban era and often is accepted in conservative and traditional families, in which women who flee domestic violence and sexual attacks can risk severe punishment often at the hands of their relatives.

Since the fall of the Taliban, a scattering of women's shelters have cropped up in and around the Afghan capital, operating independently and commonly funded by international donors.

But, advocates say, a controversial proposal working its way through the Afghan government could jeopardize these safe havens.

The measure, if passed, would nationalize the shelters, placing them under control of Afghanistan's Ministry of Women's Affairs.

"It's better to bring it under Afghan law," said Afghan Deputy Minister of Justice Mohammad Qasim Hashimzai. "Because the shelters will be more organized, legal and better controlled."

Women's rights advocates say doing so could strip these shelters of the very independent qualities that make them effective, particularly their ability to decline family requests to return the women.

Human Rights Watch published a report on shelters this year and believes the government should "support, rather than control, the work of shelter providers." That would ensure "safe and secure refuge" for women fleeing violence.

"The Afghan government claims that taking over the shelters would lead to sustainable funding and better management, but the real agenda is clear," Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch said in the report.

"The government is increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives who are hostile to the very idea of shelters, since they allow women some autonomy from abusive husbands and family members."

She points out that the government is packed with "misogynist warlords and wide open to corruption. A government shelter is far more likely to cave in to pressure from families and tribes to hand back the victims, which will put women's lives at risk."

The rights group's report cited some some positive measures about the shelter proposal, such as implementing "minimum standards of food and heating, requiring shelters to provide education and literacy services, and requiring that any police interviews with women or girls in shelters must be carried out by female officers."

But the group said the plan would result "in the closure of some shelters, restrictions on women's freedom of movement, compulsory forensic examinations, a likely reduction in protection of shelter residents from abusers, and the possible expulsion of women still in need of safety."

Selay Ghaffar, executive director of Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan which runs a shelter, told Human Rights Watch that conservatives in government simply "want to control women, to push women back into their houses, like under the Taliban regime."

But Zarina envisions a future of freedom, not Taliban-style domestic enslavement.

"When I grow up, I would like to continue my education and become a teacher, because when I was at home my father was not allowing me to go to school."

CNN's Joe Sterling contributed to this report from Atlanta.