Alarm over safety of women in Kunduz after Taliban return

Women’s rights group struggle to protect women and staffers at Afghan domestic violence shelters

As Afghan government forces fight to regain full control of the northern city of Kunduz, which the Taliban seized on Monday, women’s rights groups are desperately trying to protect women staying at shelters and the staffers who run them.

“Our Kunduz shelter and office has been looted, and we are trying to get everyone to Kabul. We are very worried that the Taliban will find them,” said Najia Nasim, the director of Women for Afghan Women (WAW) in Kabul.

She said that 15 shelter staff members are still in Kunduz waiting to be moved out and that she has lost phone contact with them. She said the five women and four children who lived in WAW shelters in the city were moved early Tuesday morning by shelter staffers, who drive them to a neighboring province and then flew them to Kabul, the capital.

WAW runs 11 women’s shelters and four children’s centers in Afghanistan, which is has long been considered one of the most dangerous countries for women, especially under the hard-line Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001.

“Our files have been burned to ensure the anonymity and safety of persons associated with WAW. But the Taliban are relentless and are actively seeking information about WAW staff, gravely endangering our staff and their families in [Kunduz] province,” said Manizha Naderi, WAW’s executive director, in an email.

The Afghan government announced early Thursday morning that Afghan security forces regained control of the city of Kunduz but that residents and journalists in Kunduz are reporting on social media that fighting continues and that the Taliban still controls some pockets of the city. Some fighters are reportedly hiding out in residents’ homes.

The shelters offer Afghan women who are victims of violence and their children a safe place to stay, counseling services and educational programs.

Despite reports by the Afghan Human Rights Commission showing increasing levels of violence against women in recent years, women’s shelters have come under attack by some religious leaders, radical groups and government officials. They say the shelters go against Afghan traditions of privately handling family disputes and encourage women and girls to run away from home.

Women’s rights advocates say they fear that shelters are being targeted by the Taliban, which wants to once again impose severe restrictions on women’s freedoms, including access to social services and education. They say women in the shelters are at high risk of being kidnapped, raped or killed by Taliban fighters.

Horia Mosadiq, an Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International in London, said she has received reports that shelters, hospitals, homes and offices have been attacked.

“We have reports of rape of the family members of Afghan Local Police soldiers and commanders, killing of people who work for the security forces and breaking into hospital, including maternity hospital, where they raped and killed two midwives and beaten others,” she said.

Amnesty International reported that the Taliban had targets. “Women human rights defenders from Kunduz spoke of a hit list being used by the Taliban to track down activists and others and described how fighters had raped and killed numerous civilians,” it said in a statement released on Thursday.

Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said in a press release Thursday that 150 Taliban fighters were killed by Afghan National Security Forces from Wednesday to Thursday morning in Kunduz.

Mosadiq said that the Afghan government has not provided civilians, including the women’s shelters, any help in evacuating. There are no reports of the Afghan government evacuating any civilians from Kunduz, and Sediqqi couldn’t be reached for comment.

That’s why Naderi sent out an urgent email to WAW supporters on Wednesday urgently asking for donations to help the group charter planes in Kabul and fly them to Kunduz to evacuate its staffers.

The Kunduz airport was taken over by Taliban fighters on Monday, and it’s unclear whether the Afghan government has retaken it.

“Right now we are not sure when we will be able to reopen the Kunduz shelter,” said Nasim.

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