A Clinic Offers Afghan Women Legal Aid—and Hope

Our driver dropped us off outside the compound that houses Kabul’s municipal government offices at Sedarat Square in the center of the city. After passing through two security checkpoints where I was frisked and patted down twice, I stepped into a courtyard mobbed with people, armed guards toting AK-47s and parked armored Humvees.

A few yards past the last checkpoint is a trailer, which houses the Justice for All Organization, a pro-bono legal clinic that represents women and indigent clients. To enter the office, you have to take a big, awkward step on and over some concrete blocks to climb the short stairway into the office.

The trailer is, not surprisingly, cramped, stuffy, and warm. There’s no air circulation. The lighting is poor. But it is here where women and other clients who cannot afford a lawyer can get legal advice and representation. It is where a dedicated group of lawyers work to uphold what passes for the rule of law and women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Mahfuza Folad, a former judge, runs the organization. She and her five colleagues (four of whom are women) work at makeshift desks waiting to help a largely female clientele. The potential clients are seeking divorce and separation, custody of their children, alimony, or they are being prosecuted because they have sought shelter from violence or are accused of committing adultery. 

Started with funding provided by the Open Society Afghanistan, the organization now serves clients in Kabul and in the provinces beyond Afghanistan’s largest city. Today, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and other international NGOs provide the organization’s funding. 

On Saturday, May 18, there were more than a dozen women, most wearing burkas, waiting to see the lawyers (Saturday in Kabul is Monday in the West).

The first woman in line, Marzia, 35, had come to the clinic because her husband had two wives and mistreated her. She wanted a divorce, but her husband threatened to kill her. The local police were not helpful because they were friendly with her husband. Mahfuza said she would draft a petition to get Marzia’s case moved to another jurisdiction where she could get a fair hearing. (I asked Mahfuza to just provide the barest of outlines about her case so that there was no violation of attorney-client privilege. Marzia spoke openly about her abusive marriage and the pain it had caused her.)

On an average day, Mahfuza said she and her lawyers provide counsel to a dozen or more clients. At any one time, they have seven open cases—the maximum permitted under Afghanistan’s rules for lawyers.

As Chris Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations, wrote about our visit to a women’s prison in Kabul in May, the problem isn’t the quality of the legal representation or the lack of lawyers willing to help. The problem is a legal system that turns those trying to protect themselves into criminals. The women wanting help from Justice for All added to the pattern that Chris Stone described during the visit to the women’s prison:

[W]omen explaining that they had been falsely accused and locked away to cover up their own victimization… The pattern in these stories seemed like a small clue into the enormous injustices that women face in Afghanistan today, even in Kabul.

Prior to joining the Foundations, my professional experience had come from journalism and several years of serving in the U.S. government. As a reporter, I covered the Congressional debate over whether to go to war in Iraq and I made two reporting trips to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. But like many Americans, my view of Afghanistan had been shaped by media coverage, which in the U.S. largely, and perhaps rightly, focuses on U.S. military action and U.S. troops killed and wounded, diplomacy, and the shortcomings of Afghanistan's government.

But Justice For All Organization’s legal clinic was an unfamiliar piece of the story of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. I would not have known about the dedicated Afghan lawyers in Kabul and in a few of the provinces working to uphold the rule of law for their less fortunate fellow citizens without traveling there. If there’s any hope for Afghanistan’s political future, it’s at the Justice for All Organization’s legal clinic.

14 Comments

Hide

Having read numerous articles (from European sources) the women/girls in Afghanistan need Justice For All Org. legal clinic(s_hopefully). Girls' schools are burnt, their attendance in schools hampered. Women do not have rights (if Afghanistan belongs to UN, then they have accepted Human Rights Declaration/Children's Rights) as intended, sometimes facing honor killings/acid attacks, mutilating their faces/bodies, permanent scars. Young girls (under 16) being married to older men, not yet fully developed for pregnancies (some dying in childbirth since Caesareans are done in hospital OR's). Women still in areas must have a male escort (family) if outside. You have to keep up the good work since Turkey (PM Erdogan and his AKP party g'ment) has promised Kabul and environs as their turf after NATO/ISAF leave next year. Let it also be noted that Norwegian forces are asking asylum for their interpreters.

I'm living in Islamabad, Pakistan. A lot of Afghan women, girls, and female children living in Islamabad city are living in a dirty environment. Mostly younger girls are begging.

Thank you, JAO for doing this work. I admire your courage and persistence.

ashok

I wish that I/we could strike this whole evil attitude & reality so hard that it would curl in upon itself & die. Thank god/allah some are doing this.

kudos to Mahfuz for that wonderful job in making sure women's right to decision making on what suits in life will be achieved. every success starts with taking a step which has already been taken. we will support you and thanks to OSF for supporting human rights issues.

What fine work by Justice for All. Great to read one of the compelling untold stories from Afghanistan. I agree with the closing lines - successful outcomes from Justice for All's casework should act as indicators of good governance in Afghanistan.

Women are indeed facing a lot of challenges in their everyday lives and many go to their graves unhappy. I therefore, join my voice to commend the Justice for All Legal Clinic for rising to the situation and defending women in the face of social setbacks.

GREAT WORK.
Do you by any chance have offices in India? If yes, can you please pass on the contact details?
Thanking you,
Sutapa

Women deserve be treated with respect and dignity. This is the 21st century and countries all around the world should understand that!!!

The situation is inhuman there but we still look back to humanity to save the situation.

Its appalling to learn what women in this war torn country are having to go through and in the midst of a society that treats women so pathetically that there are brave women who stand up and care to help the women in distress.
Women are endowed with so much strength to be able to endure the atrocity perpetrated against them and carry on with life not failing to care for their children and loved ones.
May

I met Mahfuza Folad a couple of years ago when I was in Afghanistan and went to her offices and clinic. She is a remarkable woman who has steadfastly sought justice for women. She is deserving of tremendous respect and support for her brave struggle to bring the rule of law to a country where it is largely absent.

thanks for your hard work, i agree that the rights of women in detention centers of Afghanistan is violated. but right now my main concern is the violation of the rights of all the innocent people in the country after 2014.
it is to be noticed that i have done a research on current psychological problems of children in Juvenile Rehabilitation Center of Balkh province, Afghanistan (from 22 June 2013 till 22 May 2013) where 11 girls and 43 boys who are under the age of 18 are retained. their situation of living is very bad. they are deprived of all their rights. there is not medical and pshychological support for them and all of them complained from psychological and physical problems. right now i am doing my master degree in counselling in Tata Institute of Social Sciences at Mumbai, India with support of the Open Society Foundations and i hope that you should pay attention to the rights of children who are in detention center of Afghanistan. i mean if you could have any research in this issue, this would help them alot.

Unity is strength. We need to all stand up and be vocal about women abuse. It's common worldwide. It's a pity that we, women choose to keep quiet. But I think at the same time that all is due to lack of information and poor education. These two have played a major role breaking family fibre. Most women tend to be victims because of gender inequality roles played in the households. Things unknown to the outside world. There's a lot to be identified denting the image of many women. This eventually give rise to vulnerable children and youth who end up with no role models to emulate and opt to the streets for identity. We thus need to unite and find a solution together following the term 'Prevention is better than cure' which no longer exist in our culture. Thanx to you Chris and OSF.

Add your voice