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In broken justice system, women in Kabul find their legal voice

Women gather during a meeting for women run by Care International.

Sitting cross-legged on blue velour cushions on the living room floor, the women of the self-help brigade sip green tea, nibble on sugar cookies and report the week's news from the neighbourhood.

It is mostly grim. A despondent neighbour abused by her father-in-law is threatening to kill herself. The man whose young wife suspected him of taking drugs has beaten her up and abandoned her. A husband is demanding more money than his wife can afford before he will agree to a divorce.

Sunshine pours in the windows. A squat black oil heater, all that furnishes the spare carpeted room, glows with warmth. The women frown over the stories, nod their heads in commiseration and plot how to intervene.

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Perhaps a visit and some gentle reasoning with a recalcitrant husband might work in one case. Shuttle diplomacy between feuding families could help in another. A particularly bitter inheritance dispute, pitting a destitute widow against her hostile in-laws, may have to be referred to court.

Gatherings like this one, part consciousness-raising session and part group hug, take place weekly in some of the poorest areas of the capital. About 11,000 women participate in 650 small groups organized just two years ago under the auspices of the international aid group, CARE.

They are part of a larger effort by judges, lawyers and human-rights activists to give women a voice in a justice system that now rarely hears or sees them.

In the seven years since Afghanistan adopted a constitution and set up a parliament, the country has put in place laws establishing equal rights and outlawing violence against women. Yet laws alone have changed little for the vast majority of women who must still rely on the good will of male relatives, rather than the formal legal system, to claim those rights.

In most parts of the country, the boundaries of an Afghan woman's life is still set by men: what she wears, at what age she marries, whether she can go to a doctor when she's ill, if she gets the inheritance she is due, and how much violence she is made to bear.

If she dares to object, men also are the arbiters. Civil courts and religious courts, both administered by the government to deal with family matters, do operate in a few parts of the country.

But most Afghans - by tradition, preference or mistrust of government - still use parallel informal systems of home-based justice. When there are domestic conflicts to settle or punishment to be meted out, most often they are decided within the family circle or in ad-hoc councils of male elders called 'jirgas.'

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So to effect real change in their lives, many Afghan women say they need to work with that informal system by educating and standing up for each other, house by house and street by street.

"In Afghanistan, it's useless to leave it to men to talk about women's rights because they think only in terms of how they can benefit," said Shahla Farid, a human-rights law professor at Kabul University. "The other approach is for women to learn from each other and fight for their rights. It's far from widespread, but we are seeing some results."

The formal justice system, in any case, is badly broken after years of war followed by brutal Taliban rule and now a raging insurgency across much of the country. Only six of Afghanistan's 34 provinces have a functioning family court.

The family court in Kabul, a city with an estimated population of 4.5 million, is supposed to handle cases involving divorce, alimony, child support and custody disputes. Yet it gets just 350 cases a year.

Afghans, both women and men, prefer to try to resolve conflicts first "within the matrix of the family," said Rahima Rasai, the court's chief judge.

"It's that many people are not educated," she added. "Men see the court as a threat to their authority. And women fear that if they go, they could be beaten or even killed by the husband and husband's family."

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Her approach is a hybrid of traditional and official mechanisms for adjudicating family disputes. She steers many cases to 'jirgas' of respected neighbours and elders to hear a woman's case. They are required to keep a record of their proceedings and report their decisions to a judge. Both parties also have to agree in writing to accept the ruling.

Some women's groups object to this half-measure, saying that even court-supervised councils decide cases on the basis of misogynistic traditions, like the bartering away of girls to settle debts, or an often ill-informed idea of women's rights under Islamic law.

But to Judge Rasai, they are a practical alternative to the informal jirgas that are the favoured choice of Afghan men to settle everything from crime to divorce. "Most of those don't function properly in terms of ensuring women's rights," she said. "They don't ask a woman to come forward and tell her story, and they often don't listen to her if she does."

The tradition of settling domestic disputes in private is so strong that going to court is seen as a mark of shame for many Afghans.

So just the threat of court action is sometimes enough to convince a husband or male relative to give a woman the divorce, child support or inheritance she is due, according to Masiha Fayez, a lawyer with the German-funded legal aid group, Medica Mondiale.

In the case of a husband who refused to pay support to his divorced wife, she said, the group's women lawyers might meet the husband and explain his obligations under civil and Islamic law.

"If he says 'no,' then we ask the father-in-law and brother-in-law and maybe other people the husband respects," Ms. Fayez said. "And if that doesn't work, we threaten to go to court. It's a way of shaming them. It means that the woman will speak out about what the family of the husband did to her."

The lawyers often have to plough through stiff male resistance to accepting advice from a woman, especially one who is outside the family circle. "The woman client has to be brave because when an outsider comes in, it can be more dangerous for her," she added. "And the lawyer has to be brave, because she is the one to face the husband."

The local women's self-help groups use their proximity to feuding families as an entry point to speak on behalf of their women neighbours who have no one in their own families willing to listen.

"In the beginning, we try to solve it at home, then we go to a committee of relatives and then to the jirga," says Basira, the leader of one of the CARE-sponsored groups set up in another tumbledown area in western Kabul. "These women are not educated. They can't express themselves well and present their cases. We bring out the problems because they are not confident enough to talk about them."

The meeting she leads is in another sun-splashed sitting room lined with cushions and fortified with the customary green tea and biscuits. The 20 women talk about their neighbours' problems and exchange stories of their own lives.

One tells of how she fainted when she met her husband-to-be for the first time at her wedding. She was 13. He was 70. A second woman says she could only start attending the group by pretending to relatives she was going shopping.

Another explains with pride how she convinced a neighbour not to simply leave her husband and the husband not to throw his wife out of his home. "I went there and convinced them to do it the proper way," she says, "with a divorce and him paying her support."

Just being able to share stories has been life-changing for many of the women.

"I grew up with no father and with brothers who beat me all the time," says a rail-thin woman who keeps her green headscarf clutched against her chin. "I have never known happiness."

A few of the others start to cry as she describes how she struggled to feed her children after a man convinced her to give him the papers that would have allowed her to get a charity's package of food. "I didn't understand about papers," she says. "I learned that from you, here in our group. I learned my rights and now I have to tell what I learned to my neighbours."



Life expectancy

43 (44 for men)

86 (83 for men)


18% (36% for men)

99% (99% for men)

Membership in main legislative bodies



Lifetime risk of maternal death

1 in 8

1 in 11,000

Fertility rate

6.6 births per woman

1.6 births per woman

Primary school enrolment percentage, compared to boys



Secondary school enrolment percentage, compared to boys



Sources: Afghanistan Index, Unicef. World Bank, Inter-Parliamentary Union

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