Better gender representation in the justice sector in Afghanistan will empower more women to take action against the men who abuse them. This is the reasoning of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), which released a report last week documenting the gains - and considerable challenges that still lie ahead - in bringing more women into key legal positions in the country.
The IDLO report, Women’s Professional Participation in Afghanistan’s Justice Sector: Challenges and Opportunities, is the first tranche of a global study that the organization pledged to undertake at the UN General Assembly in 2012 on the role of women in the justice sector and “to analyze the legal barriers to women’s access to justice”.
Afghanistan is entering a new phase in its turbulent history, with elections due to take place next month and foreign troops set to withdraw. It is a moment when many civil society organizations are hoping to drum up support and momentum for women’s rights, in order to safeguard the considerable gains made after the Taliban retreated in 2001, and seize on the window of opportunity that a new dispensation may bring, and hopefully advance these gains further. It is also a moment characterized by fear: should the Taliban return to power, these hard-won achievements may be reversed and women will again be forced to return to the shadows.
“The Taliban years were really disastrous for women in Afghanistan,” says Judit Arenas, director of external relations at IDLO. “It was almost as if they were erased from society. They were made to hide; they had to withdraw from political and academic life and were left completely unprotected. But since 2002 women have been trying to rise from the ashes, so to speak, in a country where they have been all but obliterated from the policy and influencing landscape.”
Certainly there has been much progress for women over the past 10 years. Millions of girls have gone back to school and there has been an improvement in maternal mortality rates. According to the Afghan Women’s Network report, Women Visioning 2024, almost a third of parliamentarians are now women. Many are running their own businesses and in the cities at least, some are in key positions in their communities. According to the IDLO report, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women enrolled in law schools.
Women still fear the justice system
Despite these gains, however, culturally-entrenched practices that are harmful to women persist, and violence against women is on the increase. According to a UN report, last year saw a 28 percent increase in violent attacks on women. Although the dramatic rise may be due in part to an increase in women reporting violence, the rise in prosecutions has been negligible. “Prosecution of women for alleged moral crimes and of rape victims continues,” says an IDLO press release.
In a society where prevailing cultural attitudes sanction the rape, forced marriage and mutilation of women, legal interventions need to take place in a “culturally sensitive” manner, said Arenas. Women who have been raped and sexually assaulted find it hard enough in any society to disclose these crimes to men, she adds, but in communities where they do not even talk to men, this is all the harder.
“As a result of Afghanistan’s strict gender-segregated social code, the low presence of women legal professionals - lawyers, prosecutors and judges - has meant that many Afghan women continue to fear, and be intimidated by, the formal justice system, which in turn dissuades them from reporting abuses against them,” says IDLO.
There is hope that having more women in these positions will help turn things around. In 2013 only 8 percent of judges, 6 percent of prosecutors and less than 20 percent of lawyers were women, the study found. Most female judges work in Kabul; in the provinces where discrimination and abuse is often worse, legal representation is the lowest, says the report.
The Elimination of Violence Against Women law of 2009 outlaws 22 harmful practices against women, including rape, child marriage and denying girls the right to school and women the right to work, but implementation on the ground has been slow. And although it was implemented by presidential decree, it was never ratified by parliament, many of whose members regard it as undermining Islam. Activists fear that it will be overturned.
They note “the broader growing conservatism in the country” and the need to make a clear distinction between religion and tradition, where the latter is used to sanction violence against women because it is perceived to be grounded in the former.
Progress has been made in connecting with religious leaders “who can play an important role in improving women’s rights if only they emphasize the essential principles of Islam, which involve “justice” and “rights” for everyone”. But the Women Visioning 24 report notes that big challenges lie in overcoming trust problems related to the women’s rights movement which has historically been driven by political elites and linked to government-led modernizing policies that have only increased tensions between reformists and traditionalists throughout Afghanistan’s history. “Women in Afghanistan currently bear the brunt of an inherited trust deficit that has resulted from past attempts at modernization and secularism.” Women’s rights are often seen as a Western phenomenon and are regarded with suspicion.
“Gender stereotyping is one of the biggest obstacles to change in Afghanistan. Women are expected to stay home or be teachers at best,” says Arenas. “But the more women take up positions of leadership, the more these gender stereotypes will be broken down,” she says. In a country where fighting for the right to attend school has been a major battle in itself, it’s a “massive jump” to get women to play a role in legal professions, she adds, pointing out that in many other countries, where women’s rights are better protected, these professions are still difficult to access.
While many more women are studying law than they were a decade ago, there is a big gap between those who graduate from law and Shariah faculties and those who are employed in the sector, according to the IDLO study. Despite the fact that women scored very highly in tests in 2012, they continue to learn from an inferior curriculum.
Although some of the “constraints are cultural, including social pressure and negative stereotypes about women’s role in society, others are practical impediments, including lack of safe transportation and appropriate accommodation facilities for women to attend law or Shari’a faculties”, reads the report.
Certainly the security threat that the justice sector is under is a big barrier to access. There have been increasing attacks on justice officials since members of the Taliban “are being tried and taken through courts”, says Arenas.
Earlier this month a judge and his bodyguard were shot and killed in Herat Province. Providing women-only transportation to law and Shariah faculties would help in this regard.