NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Afghanistan needs more female judges and prosecutors to improve women’s access to justice, a report released this week said.
A survey by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) found that in 2013 women made up just over 8 percent of the country’s judges, 6 percent of prosecutors and less than one fifth of lawyers. Afghan society’s strict segregation of the sexes, combined with the shortage of female staff, means that women find it hard to report abuse or injustices because they fear and are intimidated by a justice system dominated by men.
“Afghanistan’s perennial struggle with gender violence, discrimination and marginalization will not be won until investments in women – their freedom, their education, their academic and professional opportunity – match those in men,” IDLO Director-General Irene Khan said in a statement.
Despite improvements in the justice sector since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, Afghanistan is still short of qualified legal professionals and women remain heavily underrepresented, the IDLO said.
One in 10 Afghan women experience abuse, and last year there was a 28 percent increase in reports of violence against women. Some prominent female politicians and members of the police were killed in what many believe is a resurgence of the Taliban, which wants to re-impose sharia (Islamic law) in the troubled country.
“We are living in a society in which women face violence, almost daily,” one woman said in the report. “In order to provide justice for women and victims, women should be recruited to the justice and judicial sector.”
The IDLO study also pointed out that the majority of women in the legal field are working in the capital Kabul, in sharp contrast with the countryside where fewer than one in 30 prosecutors are women.
There are many reasons for the shortage of female legal professionals and for their patchy distribution across the country.
Some of them – practical problems such as the lack of safe transport and accommodation when women attend law school or sharia (Islamic law) faculties, and the availability of compulsory training only in major urban centres which may be impossible to reach for many rural Afghan women - could be addressed fairly easily, the report said.
Others are obstacles that are deeply entrenched in Afghanistan’s patriarchal and conservative society - social pressures, sexist attitudes and the belief that women’s rightful place is in the family home, doing their duty as wives and mothers.
While the number of female students enrolling in legal education has increased sharply in recent years, women are still underrepresented in law schools, only a small group of female graduates will end up practising law, and both law schools and sharia faculties have few women teachers, the study said.
“Improving women’s ability to work in justice institutions is essential – not only to ensure that women enjoy democratic freedoms and equality of opportunity in the workplace, but also to ensure that the specific interests of women are represented and advanced in justice institutions,” Khan said.
After years of Taliban rule during which women had virtually no rights, women have started to join the labour force again in “impressive” numbers, the IDLO said.
But 62 percent of women surveyed by the organisation said that women face many obstacles when working in the justice sector, among them a deteriorating security situation which is likely to worsen once international troops withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the year.
“The government elected in April must prioritize and secure women’s participation in the justice sector by taking simple, low-cost steps that will help secure a peaceful and prosperous future for the nation,” Khan said.