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KABUL, Afghanistan – As Afghanistan slides back into chaos, with a resurgent Taliban and dwindling international aid, many fear that the country's women's shelters could be forced to close, leaving those who rely on them at the mercy of an often harshly conservative society.
Nearly 30 shelters across the country — a legacy of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban — provide food, refuge and education for women abused by their husbands or male relatives. The shelters also offer safety to women at risk of so-called honor killings, or of being sold into marriage to repay debts, a still-common practice.
A 19-year-old at one such shelter in Kabul fled western Afghanistan after her father tried to trade her to another family for marriage in return for a young bride following the death of his wife. In the four years since she fled, she has learned to read and write, as well as how to sew, and is now teaching the other women.
She's had no contact with her father since she ran away, and fears that if the shelter closes she would have to live on the streets. "There are men who mistreat and abuse girls and women who have no place to live," she said, asking that her name not be used for fear of retribution from her family.
More than 15 years after the Taliban were overthrown, Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative country where women are largely confined to their homes. Their situation is even worse in the several districts of the country seized by the Taliban, who are more powerful than at any point since 2001.
Last month, the Taliban attacked an army base in the northern Balkh province, killing more than 140 security forces in one of the deadliest attacks launched since the extremists were overthrown.
The deteriorating security situation, and the shrinking footprint of the U.S. and NATO mission, has forced many aid agencies to scale back their activities in the still desperately poor country. U.N. agencies and global aid groups are meanwhile severely overstretched as they try to address the massive fallout from the Syrian civil war and other global crises.
That has raised concerns about the future of the shelters, which house an estimated 2,000 women at any given time.
Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan, or HAWCA, an NGO that has been operating a women's shelter in Kabul since 2004, launched an emergency appeal for funding in March after it was told it might lose support from the U.N. The U.N. funding was later extended for another three months, until the end of June, but concerns remain.
The shelter provides aid and refuge to around 300 women a year, and has a monthly operating budget of $14,000. The emergency appeal raised just $13,500.
The government operates no shelters of its own. Kobra Rezaei, a spokeswoman for the Women's Affairs Ministry, says it has asked President Ashraf Ghani to allocate funds for protecting women, including through shelters, but that no money has been forthcoming. Government spokesmen declined to comment.
Conservative religious leaders in Afghanistan have long railed against the shelters, saying they contribute to immorality among women and girls and encourage divorce. Many shelters, including those run by HAWCA, operate in secret locations.
A 16-year-old girl at a Kabul shelter, who also asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said she came there to escape her husband, who was twice her age, jobless and mentally unstable. The shelter helped her to get a divorce, but her own family won't take her back.
"I don't have anywhere, and there are thousands of other women like me, who have no one and no place to go," she said.