As US and coalition forces pull out of Afghanistan and the Taliban militia gains more territory, women and girls who have resisted gender-based violence and fled to protective shelters, even prisons, risk to be returned to their families where they face further abuse, including death.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report, there were 28 shelters in Afghanistan to protect women and girls at risk of severe forms of gender-based violence. On average, these shelters have helped up to 2,000 women and girls per year. The United States and other international donors working through local organizations have created and funded these shelters, but those that fall under Taliban control will most likely be closed.
For an Afghan girl or woman, entering a shelter exposes her to stigma and increased risk of violence if she returns home. The fact that the shelters were opened and funded by Western donors provides a pretext to accuse victims seeking protection of being Westernized and immoral. Those who fled their homes escaped extreme brutality, including child marriage and rape; domestic violence; a practice known as baad, in which girls are left with families to settle disputes; and threats of alleged honor killings.
Non-governmental organizations sometimes reconcile residents with their families through legal mechanisms or more likely by negotiating agreements. For difficult cases that cannot be resolved, victims remain trapped in shelters and prisons indefinitely, potentially for the rest of their lives. Their options inside Afghanistan are increasingly appalling. If they are not sent home to their abusers, they may end up on the streets where they will be abused and exploited and are likely to be trafficked.
A “refugee” under the 1951 Refugee Convention, codified in American law, is a person who “because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of which he is a national and cannot or does not want to avail himself of the protection of that country. Although “sex” was not included as a protected ground, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (now recognizes claims for persecution based on gender as legally eligible for refugee protection or of asylum.
Yet for Afghan women and girls in shelters and prisons, they cannot cross an international border because they do not have the proper papers, and that is too risky. Afghan laws and customs grant male parents the right to significant control over access to civil status documents and mobility. Even with a passport, going through checkpoints for a woman or girl carries many risks, as officers could return her to her family. Recently, the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan recommended in his report that these shelters continue to be funded and secured.
However, if they cannot be maintained, something else must be done to ensure the safety of these people.
It is clear that the promotion of women’s rights poses complex problems in the context of a war which itself leads to an increase in violence against women and girls. While this debate is beyond the scope of this column, it should be noted that the administration of George W. Bush argued that the promotion of women’s equality was a justification for the war in Afghanistan. U.S. taxpayers have spent billions on programs aimed at achieving gender equality by advancing the rights to education, livelihoods and political participation, and responding to gender-based violence.
President Joe Biden’s administration plans to evacuate thousands of Afghans who have supported the US mission as translators or in other roles and face the very real threat of being killed by the Taliban due to their affiliation with the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa Program. Membership in the United States is also a factor that exposes women and girls in shelters to retaliation.
Ensuring the continued safety of women and girls at risk is consistent with United States humanitarian goals, our commitment to human rights, and our foreign policy interests. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the President may determine that the priority 2 group designation is justified in the event of an unforeseen refugee situation “justified by serious humanitarian concerns or in the ‘national interest’ and which cannot be managed under the Immigration and Nationality Act. regular treatment of refugees. The situation faced by Afghan women and girls at risk of gender-based violence who are trapped in shelters presents such a situation and deserves the designation of Priority 2.
Women and girls bear the scars of conflict in unique ways, including increased incidents of conflict-related sexual violence; their needs must be our priority. If admitted as refugees, these people will have the opportunity to find safety and rebuild their lives. America has the capacity to continue to support women and girls who have spoken out against violence and for freedom and self-determination. Now is the time to act decisively.
Sherizaan Minwalla is a lawyer and researcher who attended Chicago-Kent College of Law School of Law and represented immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. She wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.