Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights

Sep 14

Interview with Huma Safi

Kabul, Afghanistan 2012

We are a local NGO that was founded in 2001 in New York. In 2006, we registered with the Government of Afghanistan. Our New York office is registered within the United States of America, and we are a separate and registered entity in Afghanistan.

We work in eight provinces in Afghanistan: Kabul, Kapisa, Balkh, Faryab, Sar-i-Pul, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Nangarhar. We are in the process of opening offices in Herat and Takhar. We work primarily on shelter needs of women, with over 450 employees and seven women’s shelters. We don’t have a shelter in Nangarhar alone. In addition, we also have eight family guidance centers. 

The shelter programming is a part of the duties of these family guidance centers. Shelter programming is available for any woman who suffers from a human rights violation. We try as hard as possible to help them through counseling, and push their cases through. If they are not successful pushing it forward informally, we refer it to the legal aid department and they push it forward after that, whether it is a criminal case or another type.

So far, about 2700 women have been helped via the shelters, and about 180 – 240 people receive assistance through the family guidance center on any given month in each province.

Now, if a woman comes with the complaint that her body is in danger, we look at whether or not she is in any immediate danger. If she is, we refer her to our shelter. Otherwise, we deal with the issue without shelter involvement.

We have another component that involves follow–up of cases. It is possible that the woman goes back home after the case closes but, after a few days, she is in danger again. We do comprehensive follow-ups for a full year, with our employees going into their homes and visiting them themselves. This is a matter of safety for the women.

Most women we work with are very young, aged mostly between 14 and 25. They face a lot of issues, and need the help we can offer them. We have to work in the clinics, courts, hospitals, and more in order to reach this very young group of individuals.

We also have transitional houses, which are for ex-prisoners. In the past, when they would be released, we would take them to the shelters because they had nowhere else to go. In some ways, they were exiting one prison and then would end up in another, because, in a shelter, they don’t have permission to use phones normally or go outside, or do such other things. We have two of these shelters, one in Kabul and one in Balkh. This was the first time in Afghanistan that transitional housing was created in Afghanistan for women. They are kept there until they have other options. People who come to us are those who can’t go home, so we try through facilitate reconciliation and reintegration for these individuals. We try to help them however we can, solving their legal or other issues, with our relevant departments. 

There are four phases to this:

(1)  Orientation to culture – these individuals just came out of prison and often don’t know what to do in a house and what not to do. This also includes getting them a ID and helping them develop a savings plan that we first contribute to and then they must contribute to

(2)  Islamic learning, life skills and educational skills - such as learning how to read and write Dari

(3)  Job placement – we determine if they can work (perhaps they are too young to work or, because they are illiterate, they are not able to find a job)

(4)  We try to get 3-4 people together to rent a house themselves if they can’t go anywhere else

There were four girls living in a house together, with one killed and another living alone. People said that they were bad women for living alone without a man. This became a very dangerous situation for us because if we continued to have people live together without a man, what would that do to our reputation and to us? Most women get married or go back home, but what about the others that don’t? They don’t have many options, if any really.

Then there are situations where a girl is left here alone, perhaps because she was divorced and couldn’t remarry or her family lives illegally in Iran and she can’t go there herself. We help these individuals as well with something similar to the transitional justice situation.

There are lots of individuals who have no choice but to live alone, including those who are injured or beaten and then are released from the hospital. They have a caretaker for awhile, and have separate rooms out of necessity. They have nowhere else to go. There are about 26 women in halfway houses like this now and 12 children.

One last thing we do at WAW is take care of children whose mothers are in prison. In the past, mothers had to take their children to prison along with them, and then they had to get them out of the prison when they turned six. The mother usually had no choice but to send them to relatives with poor financial states. We have child support centers where we help these children. There are three categories of danger for children, and this is one of them. We want to expand this in Herat because there are 61 children in prison with their mothers. At the moment, there are about 215-220 children at our centers (north, northeast and central). They stay with us in the evenings, study at normal schools and are taken by the company’s cars and the like. Of the 20 kids, in Kunduz, 19 of them were first-rankers in their classes.

Why do you do this? What is the story behind the work?

It will be my fourth year with WAW. I used to work with Catholic Relief Services before that for 5 years, and then with IRC prior to that under their mediation programme. I graduated from a madrassa, and then the Taliban came and closed our madrassa. I tried very hard, but they never let us work. After that, I just lived and noticed that too often schools were closed and people couldn’t study. I opened my own secret madrassa for girls on Islam. I noticed that the girls who came to me, particularly the young ones, couldn’t even read. They could read sometimes but couldn’t write. I did this on the side, trying to help them gain literacy. I also ended up working with women’s education in Panjshir, Kapisa, and Bamiyan, trying to implement accelerated learning programs whenever possible. My heart would just burn for these individuals. 

My interest in human rights for women when it comes to violence did not come from this specifically. But I noticed that many people believed that women had to stay in the house, and that this was where they belonged.

A lot of people have the impression that once you work for an NGO, it becomes true that you will not work for a local NGO. But that is not the case. I wanted to work for a local NGO. When we started, WAW only had offices in Kabul and Balkh, and look where it is now!

I continue to see that women face a lot of legal issues. An Afghan woman has a lot of problems – she doesn’t have education, she doesn’t have an understanding of reproductive health. A lot of them don’t have opportunities. In Ghor, we couldn’t find a woman who had studied up to third grade so that we could train her to teach first graders. We wouldn’t give people a salary even. In Ghor, there were times during which, in six months time, they wouldn’t see oil but they would still study. The biggest issue is education, because all of the other problems are rooted in our illiteracy. There are too many individuals who are illiterate, particularly among women. If we can focus on this, then we can push forward everything. Right now, 49% of people get married before they are 18. This is legal for girls 16 and above but it is still a striking number. Too many girls marry before they are even 16.

Everyone wants education, but opportunities are lacking. Enrollment in schools has gone up, but what is the benefit? By the time they enter 4th grade, they are out of school again. 

How do you separate yourself from the emotions of the sad stories you deal with in your work? 

In the work that we do, we can never separate it from our private lives. You must have heard the story of Diwa in Jalalabad. This was a girl who had a female attorney. She was the first one who managed to get to hire a female attorney! The government did not do anything. I think around 1.30am or so, last night, I just woke up  thinking of this woman and her situation. I couldn’t sleep until 5am, and was just emailing back-and-forth with our Executive Director in New York to pass time. No matter what you do, you can’t separate your emotions. However, this is necessary. Our work is very dangerous, but, if we don’t do this work, who will help these women? Our private lives are eaten up by this type of work. It is filled with stress. But you have to do what you need to do – because you know it is necessary and you know you can help some people.

On my way here, I was called with a case about a woman in Faryab in the hospital because her husband beat her and hit her on her back so much. Even now, we are dependent on others – she can’t sign her papers herself. I told my colleague that you have to sign it, that you have to sign it for this woman from WAW’s name, because she needs the help.

Helping people is exhausting but it also gives us the energy to continue work, particularly in Afghanistan where there are a lot of obstacles, from security to many other things.

We have security issues, especially if we are pushing forward a very dangerous case. In one such case, a 12-year-old girl who was married to a Commander in the ALP. We tried as much as we could to help this girl and, in the course of this case, two police officers died. Finally, the commander was imprisoned.

Have there been situations where you did all you could, but you could not really succeed in helping a woman truly?

There was another girl who wanted to marry but whose family didn’t approve and whose father bribed the courts, and sent her to prison for a year. She is out now and we are trying to push forward her marriage. She’s 19, I think, completely of legal age.

There was another girl in Faryab who married at 15 and her husband hit her so much that she just couldn’t be helped. We took her from one hospital to another, with even employees giving blood, but no one could help her. She passed away. The hospital couldn’t help her.

What main recommendations do you have to improve access to justice for women Afghanistan?

I think that the first thing that needs to happen is that we have to get rid of bureaucracy. This is particularly important in the districts. There is no prosecutor, no this person or that. These individuals get very little salaries and don’t really work for people as a result. In many, many places, there was a place in Sar-i-Pul, there was a girl who we tried to help because she was married off as a 12-year-old by her father and raped by her husband. The government only charged the husband 3,000 Afghanis. The saranwal couldn’t help, or he said he couldn’t, because she couldn’t provide evidence. I asked him, “What did you want – a video?” I asked him if he had seen the girl and he said no, so I asked him what kind of authority he had to assume she didn’t have any evidence.

 If F.I. could assist you in any way, what would you ask for? 

Awareness and advocacy

If you could share one message with the world, what would it be?

In Afghanistan, change is come and coming. We can’t allow the last ten years of work to fall apart in the future. We have to try to continue to help one another, and receive help. Any support given to the government should come with conditions to help its citizens, to help its future, and to get rid of bureaucracy. 

By Shahla Naimi

Interview with Jamila Afghani

Kabul, Afghanistan

Noor Education Centre for Development Organisation (NECDO)

It is very important to work on behalf of Muslim women’s rights within a legal framework. Any female activist in Afghanistan working in this field has to consider the religious entities in place. This is something – a type of work and lifestyle – that I find both very interesting and important.

Our organization was established in 2000 by a group of friends such as myself who were young and had just graduated from college. Our areas of work are primarily in educational spheres. We work in four provinces – Ghazni, Wardak, Badakhshan and Nangarhar. We have our headquarters in Kabul, and so we invariably do some work here as well.

We soon realized that we could not take our work forward without the cooperation and understanding of imams (religious leaders) in these areas. We needed to work with them in order to push our own educational initiatives forward. I myself said down with imams and spoke to them about the work we hoped to push forward. It was, for many of them, the first time that a woman could actually sit with them and speak intelligently about hadiths (Islamic legal traditions) and Islamic law. I studied in Peshawar, attaining two Masters’ degrees – in International Relations and Islamic Law and hope to soon get my PhD in the former. We would bring imams together for meetings to explain our work. As you can imagine, we experienced a lot of obstacles. Many of the imams are graduates of madrassas, which implement a very old system that is generally closed to women’s rights. Many of them have issues, remaining unaware of their own subjects, suffering from low educational opportunities. More often than not, they are very close-minded. They remain unaware of Islamic theology and work, such as that which occurs in Malaysia, Indonesia and elsewhere, which doesn’t often reach Afghanistan’s imams.

We arranged exposure visits to Iran, Turkey and Indonesia, working through the embassies here to send imams abroad. It was very positive. We give them training for a year or a year-and-a-half, and then we help them go abroad to see how Islam works elsewhere. We also took one male imam to a Muslim women’s conference in Turkey, and this was really wonderful. I just wondered how we would deal with a man at a women’s conference. But it went really well and he gave a speech himself – and he said:, “before I came to this conference, I thought that the most important thing for a Muslim woman was a hijab. Now, what I want for Muslim women in Afghanistan is education and training.”

In this aspect, we have managed to work well with imams, pushing forward the work we want to for women’s education. We have, in my opinion, reached 150 imams that we have empowered and helped encourage to push forward women’s educational rights. We have also set up a network of imams who are “for peace” in 15 provinces, with 15-20 imam representatives in each of these provinces. We work with them to train them on Islam, focusing on family rights and women’s rights. This allows them to take the knowledge to their own villages and push forward women’s rights. We give them the tools they need – whether on Islam itself on community mobilization – and they disseminate the information. Once a year, we all come to together in Kabul and discuss the past year, work in each province and work together to address issues.

What are some obstacles you face?

It was very difficult at some point. I had a lot of issues with my brothers, even cousins, with them believing that I should or should not work a certain way. This was replicated among the imams, who don’t always agree with our interpretation of Islam or what we recommend when it comes to them pushing forward for women’s rights. Thanks to God, we don’t have too many obstacles anymore.

Afghanistan, as you know, is a country with community leaders, warlords, etc. who all have their own opinions, particularly about women and women’s activists. We have these issues from time to time but we continue our work and do what we can. They often tell us that we are introducing interpretations of Islam to them that their fathers and grandfathers did not practice; others are more open-minded and immediately thank us for our work. My cousins would be upset with my brothers, telling them that it was wrong that I was working with foreigners and traveling abroad. It was very, very difficult to go through all of these obstacles, and sometimes, when I look back, I realize that I sacrificed a lot to do this work. I could never dress a certain way, more fashionably, in order to push my Islamic work forward. I had to protect my family’s reputation as much as I could. I was able to overcome these obstacles because I had to, and because of the support of my family and friends (whether foreign or local). If I was getting beaten – verbally or physically – they always helped me and helped it worked. One person would pick me up from meetings, another would drop me off. They supported me a lot.

My husband is incredibly supportive of my work thankfully, which has been very helpful, particularly in this society. Now, thankfully, I don’t have so many issues with my brothers or cousins or anyone. My husband is a very religious man, and hails from a highly religious and well-known family, so that has helped quite a lot. He works on women’s issues as well, helping Afghan women as he can. All of this has helped a lot.

How do you deal with insecurity in these provinces?

God protects us as needed. We have some safety precautions, analyzing situations on the ground, trying to understand what is more and less risky. We try to approach things from an Islamic perspective, which helps a lot, and, if our employees have to remain in a province in the evening, they will often stay with the imams we work with. These imams were introduced to us by the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs itself, and then they introduced us to other imams. So, because the government introduced them to us, we know that they are safer. Everything we do is culturally-sensitive, and from an Islamic perspective – at the end of the day, this is the most valuable tool for us.

We had a conference last year, for instance, and, in order to accommodate the imams’ beliefs and approaches, we separated the food and chai tables between men and women.

We can’t change everything in a day. It will take a hundred years. Every achievement has to build on a previous achievement; it can’t be left without its foundations. Thankfully, we haven’t experienced any particular or large issue as remain open and sensitive as often and as much as possible. This is just something we have to do. So, if I am a woman in a leadership position, they may feel discomfort about this but we try to deal with this in the best way we can, like a family – like brothers and sisters.

Do you also provide programming for women themselves?

In ten mosques, we have worked with these imams to establish “female sections” and educational programs, including workshops. In Jalalabad, as you know is relatively conservative as well, for the first time, two mosques now have classes for women in which they can express themselves and their opinions. This type of awareness raising that we do with the imams ends up disseminating itself with imams setting up programs or improving programs and thus asking us for help in these situations.

If F.I. could assist you in any way, what would you ask for?

One thing FI did help us with is with the information they provide us about Islam and Islamic law, which we use to inform ourselves. Perhaps, if possible, if FI can assist us with translation and editing. As much as we try in Afghanistan, we are behind compared to other Islamic countries. If there is a way they could help us update our skills, hold seminars or workshops with imams, or something along these lines, it will help us open our minds and teach us. At that conference last year, for instance, we had a woman from Iran who was a scholar of fiqh and it received a lot of positive responses, with individuals shocked to meet this woman and really taking advantage of her knowledge and experience. Women should be in such a positive and, if FI can introduce us to more knowledgeable women like this, that would be very helpful for us to introduce them to imams.

If you could share one message with the world, what would it be?

I think that it would be that we should all live together and work together as a matter of our shared humanity. We must forget and let go of all the differences and see what the same things within us all is.

By Shahla Naimi

Jul 24

I am happy to let you know that we are planning on restarting our working group discussions (WGDs) this summer through virtual google hangout chats. We are hoping to have at least two WGDs, one in July and one in August, for anyone who is interested. We hope that the WGDs this time around will integrate both literature and multimedia to set the context for a larger discussion. For the month of July, our WGD is titled “The Politics of the Local and the Universal in Women’s Human Rights and Development Work” (see attached flyer). We have selected one academic article and three short videos to discuss in our first WGD. The article is a rich piece on the politics of transnational human rights work by anthropologist Sally Engle Merry. The video links relate to the film “Half the Sky” as well as the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence Against Women
Contact Helena Zeweri @ helenazeweri@feminijtihad.org

I am happy to let you know that we are planning on restarting our working group discussions (WGDs) this summer through virtual google hangout chats. We are hoping to have at least two WGDs, one in July and one in August, for anyone who is interested. We hope that the WGDs this time around will integrate both literature and multimedia to set the context for a larger discussion. 

For the month of July, our WGD is titled “The Politics of the Local and the Universal in Women’s Human Rights and Development Work” (see attached flyer). We have selected one academic article and three short videos to discuss in our first WGD. The article is a rich piece on the politics of transnational human rights work by anthropologist Sally Engle Merry. The video links relate to the film “Half the Sky” as well as the recent Global Summit to End Sexual Violence Against Women

Contact Helena Zeweri @ helenazeweri@feminijtihad.org

Jun 14

Honour Killings - Myths and Motives

This legal opinion has been written to shed light on the motives behind honour killings that have been reported in the Middle East and South Asia.

The opinion is written for lawyers and activists so that they may use the arguments contained herein, to debunk popular myths of how and why honour killings occur. The question of how and why honour killings occur is important because we can then analyse what the honour defence provision under the Penal Code protects; and who or in what circumstances. For instance, is it true that in reality the defence is used to protect innocent individuals who commit murder in the moment of an emotional trauma when witnessing an incident of infidelity? This legal opinion will interrogate the reality behind the ulterior motives of honour killings.

It is erroneous to assume that the defence of honour emerges alone upon the witnessing of the “wife naked in bed with another man” or other more apparent prima facie evidence. Instead, the statistics above show that the honour defence is abused by murderers with ulterior motives. ‘Honour Crimes’ are also being “commercialized”, committed in an effort by families to:

  1. Retain property rights;
  2. Gain compensation from the individual accused;
  3. Settle a personal vendetta; to prevent women from claiming inheritance

    rights;

  4. Hide the exposure of incest.

It has even been reported that in Jacobabad, Pakistan, a man killed his wife after he had dreamed of her having an ‘illicit’ relationship.

To read more, click here: Honour Killings – Myths and Motives

Jun 02

Interview with Deya Bhattacharya on FI and all things women’s rights!

We have been working pro bono for a long time, and FI/SAHR believes in bridging the gap between academic and activism in women’s empowerment issues. I don’t think I’d ever refuse the position! In the last few years, we have received the FRIDA (The Young Feminist Fund) grant and the SOAS Best-Student Volunteering Projects.

We are a team of several women from four different continents, whom I have never met! But the amount of camaraderie between us is phenomenal. I always write to Natasha whenever I am in trouble and she always makes sure she sends a positive audio-note and almost always with a solution to my problem! I am grateful to Natasha, Anna, Sara and Sarah for always being there to brainstorm on my (sometimes ridiculous) ideas.

The work I have done here is mostly linking women’s rights to post-conflict/conflict areas. I have also assisted in strategic litigation, drafted arguments, concept notes and training modules for child custody, rape, and domestic violence issues. A project that brought us accolades is a research we (Sarah Jones, Sara Bergamaschi and I) conducted in Libya, interviewing Libyan activists on the right of political participation of women after Gaddafi’s fall. The research was published and presented in plenty of international conferences.

Read more here!

May 03

Honour Defence Mitigation from Criminal Jurisprudence Perspectives

Why honour killings fall short of standards required in criminal law

Mitigation is a small element in the judicial toolkit acknowledging the frailties of human nature. While intent (mens rea) bears criminal liability, the law adopts a softer view on impulsive reactions. But this is not a boundless discretion bestowed upon courts.

Honour killings are tantamount to encouraging summary executions by private individuals based on communal and/or personal affronts. The defence of Provocation is different. An essential ingredient of ‘provocation’ is loss of self-control. In most legal systems, the standard is higher where provocation requires immediacy and intensity. There are temporal and proportionality constraints built into it. This means the defence of provocation is limited by proximity of time between the provocating incident and reaction; the reaction must be immediate. It is also limited in terms of proportionality: the reaction must be proportional to the provocating incident. These concepts are by no means new to the Afghan legal system.

 Legal safeguards are necessary for people who do not, or cannot understand the implications of their actions on account of mental incompetence generally (eg. insanity) or within a given period (eg. inebriation). Similarly, provocation defence assumes that reasonable and deliberate choices would have been made, but for, a sudden lapse in judgment in the moment of intense emotions. That is to say, mitigation is only permitted to a moment and context, where an otherwise non-criminal mind disintegrates enough to perform a criminal act. Implied in this reasoning is that the Court has to find that:

a) there was a change of state from a sound mind to an unsound mind;

b) that the change occurred immediately;

c) that the change resulted from a serious provocation;

d) that the response was proportional to the provocation;

e) and failing which, the subject would be held criminally liable.

However in an honour killing defence, mitigation is not premised on points (a)-(e). The mitigation applies regardless, i.e. even a man of sound mind possesses a default right to kill in the event dishonour, whether perceived or real.

The threshold of ‘sudden and grave provocation’ differs on a case-to-case basis. But the defence of honour is fundamentally different in nature. It rests on cultural norms while the perpetrator is fully aware of his actions. Just as personal prejudices are not permitted as a valid legal defence, communal or tribal tradition cannot be entertained by law if they infringe upon others’ lives and safety. Such a localized and regressive legal system will defeat the purpose of generally accepted principles of human behaviour. In addition, honour killings are never precipitated by provocation (as required by law) to constitute an adequate defence. Instead they are premeditated acts of homicide committed by conscious minds that calculate the consequences of ‘dishonour’, analyse its subjective effects upon themselves and then proceed to inflict a deliberate loss of life upon a member of the family.

Read More: Honour Defence Mitigation from Criminal Jurisprudence Perspectives

Written by:

Deborshi Barat

Supervising Lawyer

Natasha Latiff

Founder & Legal Advisor

Legal Framework on Evidence in Rape Cases

This legal framework was developed after a preliminary review of rape cases brought before international courts and tribunals, as well as, courts in South-Asia. The selection of issues was based on what typically arise in court cases on rape and sexual assault and their impact on women as complainants and defendants. In this guide, we reiterate arguments that have been successfully used by human rights lawyers on controversial legal questions. We have made this framework a practical tool of reference by offering suggestions for case strategy in like cases.

This framework refers mainly to the jurisprudence developed by international and human rights courts and committees; the CEDAW Committee, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to mention a few. They are instructive on gender-analysis and the use of evidence in rape cases. The cases we have selected are based on their precedence and frequent citation by international bodies like the CEDAW Committee. 

Finally, references have been made to Pakistani law due to their relevance and proximity to the cases that appear in Muslim-majority jurisdictions. Some English legal standards were used due to the abundance of material on the law of evidence in the English language. They were also included due to their rigorous methods of standard-setting.

 Admittedly, these standards in the absence of law, are not binding upon any court. However, it is envisaged that through the strategic use of these ‘standards,’ gender stereotypes and narratives in Court can be exposed and challenged logically and persuasively. Though meant for lawyers, the arguments can also be developed further for lobbying, law reform, and activities.

Read more here 

By: Alice Ollino, Natasha Latiff