U.N. says Afghanistan's court system fails women

U.N. says Afghanistan's court system is failing women, who turn to mediation instead

The United Nations says Afghanistan's court system is failing to provide adequate access to women who are victims of violence.

In a report released Sunday, “Justice through the eyes of Afghan Women,” the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said more women are turning to non-judicial methods, such as local mediation councils, rather than the traditional court system.

The 35-page report, produced in cooperation with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, is comprised of a series of interviews with 110 women across 18 of the nation’s provinces between August 2014 and February 2015. The vast majority of those interviewed chose to resolve their disputes through mediation rather than legal means.

Though the Elimination of Violence Against Women law, passed by presidential decree in 2009, criminalized 22 acts of violence, the U.N. found several factors that caused women to shun the court system.

Along with fears of corruption, including paying bribes to move the process along, women in Afghanistan, as in many other countries, felt they lacked a clear understanding of the legal process to know how the law would be applied to their cases.

Also, with increasing economic insecurity and unemployment in the country, women feared alienating or imprisoning the men who are most often the sole breadwinners of their households.

Nicholas Haysom, the secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan and the head of the assistance mission, said: “Mediation of violence against women cases require support and monitoring so they are guided by principles of consent, safety, impartiality and inclusivity.”

The report found at least six cases in which a woman complainant was not present during mediation. In 11 other cases, the call for mediation was “imposed on the woman” by other parties.

Of the 80 cases that were seen through to completion, only five resulted in convictions.

Though the U.N. favors referring cases of violence against women to the courts, women’s rights activists said that until the judiciary is rid of corruption and reaches the entire nation, the value of mediation cannot be discounted.

Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a women’s rights activist who worked directly on cases of violence against women from 1999 to 2007 in Afghanistan and the refugee camps of Pakistan said that while there is an “assumption that mediation is anti-woman, often it is also a lasting, long-term solution to domestic violence.”

Speaking to The Times, Nemat said the majority of the mediations she has been part of saw family members from both sides join together to find mutually agreed upon solutions under the supervision of the legal department of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

For many Afghans, Nemat said, mediation is as much influenced by geography as any other factors.

“Afghanistan is still 80% rural. Beyond the boundaries of district centers, people do not have proper access to formal court systems,” she said.

Nemat conceded that violations take place in the mediation process, but said that courts have also proven problematic.

“In the past, we have had judges telling victims of gang rapes to marry their rapists. Clearly, there has to be a certain level of corruption in the formal systems for people to prefer mediation.”

It was these shortcomings, said Nemat, that led her and a collective of other female leaders and rights advocates to help craft the violence against women law.

“It came from the shortcomings we were facing in dealing with the Afghan judiciary system … because our laws are vague,” she said.

Latifi is a special correspondent.

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