In The News

Working Toward Women’s Justice in Afghanistan

February 10, 2010

Since the London conference on Afghanistan last month, there has been a growing buzz among women’s rights activists about the continued perception that women are absent from policy decisions in Afghanistan, most recently at the negotiating table with the Taliban. To better understand these concerns, it is perhaps prudent to take a step back and decipher the complexities surrounding women’s access to justice and political participation in Afghanistan.

Undeniably, overall in Afghanistan, women continue to be discriminated against and refused the right to participate in decision-making processes. What is often overlooked is the dichotomy between the capital, Kabul, and the rest of the country. Rural women exist within a very traditional society, and feel far removed from ongoing political debates. Kabul, on the other hand, is seen as an island of modernity, with a growing group of women activists. Rural women are often bound to their homes by traditional cultural beliefs that tie a woman to the private sphere with little access to education and work opportunities. These women more often than not go unnoticed. Perhaps not surprisingly, education, lack of job opportunities, women’s rights, and violence against women remain main concerns for these women, according to The Asia Foundation’s 2009 Survey of the Afghan People.

Above, girls attend primary school sessions taught outside in a school yard under tents provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province. Access to education continues to be one of the major concerns women face in Afghanistan. Photo by Susan Marx.

Above, girls attend primary school sessions taught outside in a school yard under tents provided by the UN High Commission for Refugees in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province. Access to education continues to be one of the major concerns women face in Afghanistan. Photo by Susan Marx.

Women’s rights and their access to justice are essential if Afghanistan is to afford any sort of lasting peace for its citizens. It’s not feasible to expect positive growth and development if a country ignores the well-being of half of its population. However, the realities on the ground don’t always correspond to the kind of development assistance that is being offered by some donors and aid agencies.

Justice reform is a case in point. While major efforts are being made to reform the formal justice system in Kabul, the majority of women in Afghanistan continue to live in rural areas outside the political circle of the capital. Our 2009 survey of the Afghan people found that of Afghans who filed a case in the past two years, 38 percent relied on the formal court system, while 47 percent preferred to use the village or neighborhood-based shura or jirga. So, how to best approach these two different systems used simultaneously by Afghanistan’s disparate spheres? Clearly, reform in the top-down formal justice system is critical. But those who have seen the realities outside the big cities recognize an equally important need to work within the traditional justice sector as utilized by the majority of Afghans outside of Kabul.

One thing The Asia Foundation and its Afghan partner organizations have been doing over the past five years is making it a priority to try to make justice mechanisms available to women at the village and community levels. One of the main objectives is to help change some basic perceptions and misinterpretations of obligations and rights between men and women. For example, we work with senior Islamic scholars and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to make sure that laws themselves aren’t seen as being in contradiction with Islam. Most importantly, we’ve helped create materials for local religious leaders and scholars to use in discussion groups to raise awareness that there are inequalities and cultural challenges faced by women in rural Afghanistan. This is a new idea, and the religious leaders and scholars are focusing on getting men to understand this.

Curriculum development workshops bring together local religious leaders at the Ministry of Hajj in Kabul for weekly discussions to raise awareness of the challenges Afghan women face.

Curriculum development workshops bring together local religious leaders at the Ministry of Hajj in Kabul for weekly discussions to raise awareness of the challenges Afghan women face.

The discussion groups are held at the heavily-attended Friday prayer sessions at mosques and at clinics and schools and reach tens of thousands of people across nine provinces each month. The groups talk about the everyday challenges and concerns women face, and then they help them mitigate actual cases. For example, cases of forced marriage of under-aged girls, of repeated verbal and psychological abuse of young wives by their mothers-in-law, and, recently, a case to simply assist in the separation of a husband and wife with irreconcilable differences. These interventions don’t replace reform of the formal justice system, but they work within the existing system and help to address real legal issues for women who do not have access to any other form of justice.

Susan Marx is The Asia Foundation’s Acting Deputy Country Representative in Afghanistan. She can be reached at smarx@asiafound.org.

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