STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Now let's talk about the effort to protect some of the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan - battered women. We first reported last winter on a proposal to put shelters for battered women under government control. Women's advocates protested, saying that would turn the shelters into virtual prisons for women who had run away from home. After much media attention, the Afghan government promised to reexamine this issue - and they did. Women's groups are largely pleased with the results. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.
QUIL LAWRENCE: The controversy began last winter, when a tabloid television program broadcast from outside one of Afghanistan's few shelters for battered women. With no evidence, the presenter claimed the shelter was a front for prostitution - a very common libel for any woman living independently in conservative Afghan society.
MARY AKRAMI: Unfortunately, a woman issue is a political issue.
LAWRENCE: Mary Akrami is director of one Afghan women's shelter. She says very high-ranking government officials often play politics with women's rights, to the point where they sound very much like the Taliban. In that atmosphere last year, the government drafted a law that would have taken control of women's shelters and turned them into virtual prisons, requiring government approval and even virginity tests before women could enter. Akrami says the threat of such a law galvanized activists across the country.
AKRAMI: In general, I am really very optimistic. Since last year, we have seen a lot of positive changes.
LAWRENCE: Akrami says after months of discussion, the government has removed almost all of the objectionable parts of the shelter regulation. Most importantly, the shelters will remain independent and able to receive money from donors without going through the Afghan government. Georgette Gagnon, director of human rights for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, says Afghan women's groups organized and succeeded.
GEORGETTE GAGNON: They were able to convince the government and others that shelters were needed, that they needed to be independent, and they needed to preserve women's rights and dignity. So this regulation is really quite a victory for women's rights in Afghanistan.
LAWRENCE: Early this month, the government quietly approved new rules, perhaps wishing to avoid the controversy generated by supporters and opponents of the draft law last winter. Once the regulations are published, women's shelters across the country will have three months to comply. There are still some issues with the law, says Selay Ghaffar, who runs a shelter in Kabul. She says one part of the regulation makes it impossible for a woman to move out of the shelter unless she's going to the home of a male relative.
SELAY GHAFFAR: It's not really too much respecting the human rights for women, being an independent and being freely to have a life and enjoy the basic human rights in this country.
LAWRENCE: Ghaffar says in many cases those same male relatives may have abused or threatened to kill a woman who ends up in a shelter. But she concedes that may be more a problem with Afghan society, where it's nearly impossible for a woman to live alone without a grown son, father or brother. It will take a lot more than a new regulation to change that. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.
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