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14 March 2010

Medica Afghanistan: Legal Assistance for Afghan Woman and Girls

The legal assistance project run by Medica Afghanistan offers general legal advice to women and provides female prisoners with criminal defence in court. The project’s female Afghan lawyers are committed to ensuring a fair trial for the women. Additionally, they also provide legal advice in civil affairs such as divorce and custody cases. Medica Afghanistan’s lawyers and social workers also help to mediate between women and their relatives to mitigate family conflicts. Many women are imprisoned as a result of such conflicts escalating, so this mediation work helps to prevent court cases in advance.

Legal situation for women characterised by arbitrariness

A majority of the women in Afghan prisons are being held because of so-called “moral crimes” or “Zina”: they are generally accused of adultery but are in most cases themselves victims of defamation, rape or forced prostitution. A simple conversation or eye contact with another man is often enough to prompt suspicions of “Zina”. Another common reason for being arrested and turned into a criminal is running away from home. Although the girls involved are often fleeing violence and forced marriage, the traditional attitude forbids women and girls to leave their house without permission, so being caught away from home is enough to be accused of adultery or prostitution.

Arrest and imprisonment generally occurs simply on the basis of an allegation. The accused then has to prove their innocence. Medica Afghanistan’s support is immensely important to these women and girls because a motivated defence team can influence the progress of the court case very significantly.

Legal advice and representation in court

A total of ten female lawyers and four social workers work for Medica Afghanistan. Legal consultation rooms have been set up in Kabul, Herat and Mazar. A similar office in Kandahar unfortunately had to be closed at the end of 2008 because it became too dangerous to stand up for women’s rights there. In these drop-in centres, the Afghan lawyers advise women and girls on issues of civil law such as divorce and custody cases, and they also prepare the representation in court. Together with social workers, they also mediate in order to try and settle the matters out of court.

Working conditions for the lawyers are extremely difficult. Corruption is thriving: people with money can generally buy their way out of sentences or imprisonment. However, families generally only buy male relatives free. Female members of the family imprisoned after allegations of “moral crimes” are usually left in prison unless the family sees a need and chance to protect its reputation – this is more important than protecting the woman. So women have a double disadvantage: they are treated as having no rights and they receive no support from their families.

Legal assistance brings success: Since the project began, some 8,000 women have benefitted from mediation, legal advice or criminal defence in court provided by the lawyers and social workers from Medica Afghanistan. About 2,000 women facing a court case were acquitted or received a lower sentence than the state prosecutor demanded thanks to Medica Afghanistan’s intervention in court, with the judges or at the justice authorities or the dialogue between the organisation’s workers and the families involved. This is an enormous success for the women affected and for the organisation and its workers.

Success for Medica Afghanistan: perpetrator taken to court
In spite of the cover-up attempts, threats and sidestepping: in 2006 a man was taken to court in Kabul for the rape of a five-year-old girl. The lawyers from Medica Afghanistan had worked closely together with the State Prosecutor to gather sufficient evidence for a prosecution. The man claimed to be innocent, claiming he was impotent and using this in his defence, but the wealth of evidence proved conclusive and the perpetrator was sentenced to 20 years in jail. This was a groundbreaking judgement for Afghanistan, a country characterised by general impunity for rapists.

Mediation in cases of conflict

In Afghanistan it is often very difficult for former prisoners to return to their families. Many experience rejection or threats, becoming an outcast because their family see them as casting shame upon the family. However, living alone is far from being an easy option for women in Afghanistan, where it is almost unthinkable to live outside the field of family relations. So the legal advisers from Medica Afghanistan continue to assist women and girls after they are released from prison. Mediation between the affected women and their relatives can help to ease the difficult process of reintegration into the family. This path usually succeeds in ensuring the safety of women within the family or their village community and avoiding any further violence.

Furthermore, Medica Afghanistan offers its mediation services for other women and their relatives when conflicts arise within the family, aiming to achieve a settlement out of court or before the dispute is taken to court in the first place. In 2010, mediation was carried out in 67 families to prevent violence or assist the reintegration of women into their families.

Mediation rooms in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif

Families frequently refuse to be visited by female lawyers or social workers because they are afraid of the disgrace this might bring upon the family if the neighbours see. So Medica Afghanistan found a solution in May 2007 by setting up its own mediation centre on the site of Kabul’s pre-trial detention centre. This offers a place for families and prisoners to receive counselling and look for ways to resolve their conflicts. Easily accessible consultation rooms have also been set up in Herat and Mazar-e Sharif.

Human rights training for police and prison staff

Violence inflicted upon women by police or security staff is seldom taken to court as a crime. Security staff are often ignorant of the new modern laws in place regarding violence and on top of this, there is a general traditional attitude that women and girls simply don’t have many rights. In order to change this, Medica Afghanistan carries out trainings for police staff on the topics of human rights and violence against women. The first results are becoming visible with police referring more cases of domestic violence to the legal advice team at Medica Afghanistan, who then take over the provision of support for the women. The organisation’s female lawyers also conduct training sessions for prison staff. They inform them about regulations governing the treatment of prisoners under binding international law and raise their awareness of the special situation regarding imprisoned women. More than 500 police and 80 prison staff have attended training sessions on women’s rights so far.