In A "Culture Of Silence" Women's Shelters Provide Safe Haven

Until 2003, an abused woman living in Afghanistan would have two choices: stay with her husband or return shamed to her family. Police were no help, and women's shelters did not exist.

Six years later, a lot has changed. While beating, torture, and trafficking of women is still horrifically common and broadly accepted, women's rights groups have made significant headway, today's New York Times reports.

Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, founded the first women's shelter in Afghanistan in 2003. Now there are four different organizations running shelters in Afghanistan. While they have helped many women escape abuse, and even death, they are not welcomed by everyone:

Women's shelters have been criticized as a foreign intrusion in Afghan society, where familial and community problems have traditionally been resolved through the mediation of tribal leaders and councils. But women's advocates insist that those outcomes almost always favor the men.

Until the advent of the shelters, a woman in an abusive marriage usually had nowhere to turn. If she tried to seek refuge with her own family, her brothers or father might return her to her husband, to protect the family's honor. Women who eloped might be cast out of the family altogether.

In response to the criticism, women's rights advocates insist that they are trying to preserve the structure of the family by mediation and counseling, not break up marriages. However, they have been known to help clients find new husbands, a fact that surely can't win them any points with the opposition.

But the women who arrive at the shelters are typically in serious need. Having nowhere else to turn, the women's shelter gives them a rare safe haven. And the shelters are full of girls like Mariam, 17, who was sold into marriage at age 11 to a man thirty years her senior to pay for her father's drug debts. After suffering years of abuse, Mariam went to the police, who placed her in a women's shelter. When asked what comes next, she said: "I want my divorce, and then I want to study."

Afghan Women Slowly Gaining Protection [New York Times]