Where Women Go When They’re Running From Their Own Families

American money and support have built refuges for Afghan women threatened with honor killings—but will they last after the U.S. withdraws?

(Photo: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

America’s years-long intervention in Afghanistan may not have done much to bring about lasting peace, but it will leave behind at least one legacy making a positive difference: emergency shelters for women at risk of being hurt or killed by their own families.

As The New York Times reports, about 20 such shelters have been set up around Afghanistan in the last 10 years, championed and largely funded by American and other Western donors. They provide refuge and support for thousands of women and girls who have run away from home to elope or to escape arranged marriages—acts of rebellion that are perceived as bringing shame upon their conservative families, who then seek to restore their “honor” by killing the wayward daughter.

Afghanistan isn’t the only place where honor killings are carried out. Thousands of such murders are committed each year in India, Pakistan, and other countries, including in immigrant communities in the U.K. and the U.S. While many honor killings go unreported, at least 5,000 occur every year around the world, according to estimates from the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network.

The shelters in Afghanistan aren’t exactly popular. As The New York Times’ Alissa Rubin puts it, “allowing women to decide for themselves raises the prospect that men might not control the order of things, as they have for centuries. This is a revolutionary idea in Afghanistan.” Conservative religious leaders oppose the shelters, and so do some in the Afghan government. “Lawmakers came very close in 2011 to barring the shelters altogether and in 2013 nearly gutted a law barring violence against women. They yielded only after last-minute pressure from the European Union and the United States,” reports Rubin.

Several organizations across the globe are coming up with ways to support women and speak out against honor killings. In Jordan, a group called No Honor in Crime publishes profiles and photos of the women killed, describing in detail who they were in an effort to humanize the murders. Women for Afghan Women offers support to women who have been assaulted by family members, and Humanity Healing is an advocacy group that campaigns against honor killings in Pakistan.

While the shelters in Afghanistan have helped many women escape their vindictive families, they have become a kind of limbo for others. Rejected by their families, women who can’t make it on their own wind up stuck. “For these abused women, the longer they live suspended between two worlds, the less the shelter comes to feel like a haven and the more like a jail,” writes Rubin.