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Shelters for women and girls in Afghanistan

By Sarah Crowe

HERAT, Afghanistan, 14 March 2011 – No more than nine years old, she was taken from mother’s home to her husband, a man 14 years older than her. All she could take with her was a small doll she had made out of the cloth of her sister’s wedding dress.

VIDEO: 10 March 2011: UNICEF's Sarah Crowe reports on a programme to ensure women's voices are heard in Afghanistan.  Watch in RealPlayer


For Farah (not her real name), it was the one and only symbol she had of her stolen childhood and even that was thrown away by her mother-in-law. Her story of forced early marriage after a payment of 50,000 Afs ($1,100) to her father, then a chronicle of cruelty and abuse by her in-laws, ended like so many others in her running away and finding a safe haven at a women’s shelter.

Farah, now 12, has been at the shelter for the past year and all she dreams of is getting a divorce, some schooling and going home to her mother and father. Under the Taliban, women’s shelters did not exist but they have come under the spotlight again with the Afghanistan government’s plans to control them.

Women’s shelters

There are 14 women’s shelters around the country – supported by international organizations like UNICEF – and about 40 per cent of the women in the shelters are under the age of 18.

Human rights activists fear government does not have the capacity to run shelters and that control would mean no safe havens for young women and girls like Farah. So for this year’s International Women’s Day, some took to 21st century technology to broadcast their struggles and hopes to young women on the other end of the world.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2011/Froutan
Suraya Pakzad (centre), a champion of women’s rights, attends a ceremony to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March 2011 in Herat, south-western Afghanistan.

Led by a courageous and much decorated champion of women’s rights, Suraya Pakzad – whose organization, Voices of Women Organization, VWO, runs some shelters – a group of young women from a shelter spoke from a rooftop in Herat via live video streaming (using Skype and BGAN) from Herat to a very different group of young women in Sydney.

The Australian volunteers were deeply moved by the experience and disturbed to hear how Suraya’s life was at risk for protecting children from early marriage and abuse:

“Those who are after me are supported by warlords, by extremists, and they are calling and threatening me on the way that they will kidnap my son, they will kill myself, by doing this or that, my phone – calling me – you know mentally they try to disturb me,” said Suraya.

International pressure

Suraya is a rarity in Afghanistan defying death threats with dignity and determination. She believes women are being used as a bartering ball in current Afghan politics and is convinced that publicity will hold back the tide of extremism who are trying to “kill our voices in our throats”, she said.

The shelters are seen by some in authority as going against Afghan tradition and encouraging women to run away from their homes.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2011/Froutan
Young girls from a safe shelter in Herat, south-western Afghanistan interact via a live video link with UNICEF volunteers in Sydney. Facilitated by women's rights champion Suraya Pakzad and organized by UNICEF, the Afghan teenage girls shared their experiences with the Australian audiences.

“Women are treated like a commodity in Afghanistan. Our concern now is that if international community doesn’t put pressure on Afghanistan government things will happen,” said Suraya. “First they will try to bring the shelters under the control of the ministry of women, then if the shelters would merge with the ministry and the ministry shuts down, the Taliban will be happy.”

‘Unstoppable momentum’

UNICEF is committed to continuing its support.

“We wouldn’t be supporting the shelters now if we felt they weren’t operating in an acceptable way,” said Peter Crowley UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.

Rights for girls and women have taken a great leap forward in Afghanistan. In 2001, only 1 million primary school-aged children were enrolled, of whom very few were girls. By 2008, 6 million children were in school, including 2.3 million girls.

“I think there is an unstoppable momentum and it’s partly generated by the young women and the older generations of women themselves who are not easily going to surrender what has been achieved and what they've gained.”



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