Women in Herat Seek Mediation, Legal Help to Fight Desertion and Violence

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Herat, November 2011: Fatima (name changed), resident of Injil on the outskirts of Herat city in western Afghanistan, was married to her first cousin Sultan, at age 15. Unable to cope with the daily physical violence of her husband who also forbade her from attending school, and daily arguments with her mother-in-law, she ran away to her parent's home. It has been seven months since Fatima left her husband's home and her condition is exacerbated by the fact she is in an advanced stage of pregnancy.

Recently, Taj Mohammad, Fatima's father approached Jamila Khusrawi who heads the Herat Women's Shura (HWS), a voluntary organization that supports women's empowerment and provides assistance and support to vulnerable women who are victims of domestic abuse. Jamila promptly agreed to mediate between Fatima, her husband and their respective families.

"I have called the couple, their fathers and a trusted elder, says Jamila. There is no reason this young girl should be left to fend for herself, without the support of her husband", says Jamila, who says more than 300 cases of violence against women and their abandonment have been solved through mediation by the HWS in the last nine years."If mediation doesn't work, we have the wherewithal now to refer the issue to a lawyer who would file the case in the court of law. But often that is not needed, as our mediation works in most cases", avers Jamila, exuding an air of measured confidence.

HWS is one of the 8 beneficiaries of a Legal Help Centre that UNDP helped set up at the start of 2011. Working in partnership with Afghan institutions, UNDP's Gender Equality Project set up these Centres in Balkh and Herat provinces to provide victims of domestic violence with legal protection and mediation support. The Centres, which are managed by a qualified lawyer, provide training to local communities and work with the authorities to highlight the issue of women's rights. The support includes modest resources for advocacy campaigns.

Back in Jamila's office, thanks to her painstaking efforts, a breakthrough seems near. After trading charges and counter-charges it seems good sense will prevail as Sultan agrees to take back Fatima, albeit with conditions. Among those, she can go to her parent's home only once in a week and he will escort her both ways. "I cannot leave my young, beautiful wife to sleep with other men", he says. "Next, she should always prepare food on time. Lastly, she has to adapt and adjust to our family norms".

But Fatima insists that she cannot get back together with Sultan unless he leaves his parent's house and rents a separate house, some distance away from her in-laws. After some resistance, Sultan agrees but with a caveat. They will continue living in the same house but separate from his parents. Knowing how deep family ties tend to be in this part of the world, Jamila thinks that is a neat offer from Sultan, and one that Fatima should accept. Fatima relents and Sultan is beaming about the prospect of connecting back with his young wife. Hidden behind the veil, it is impossible to fathom Fatima's reaction.

Jamila wraps up the mediation by getting both Fatima and Sultan sign on a commitment letter. The Legal Help Centre of the HWS will monitor the case for three months. If Geeta is still found to be at the receiving end of violence or abuse on the part of her husband and her in-laws, the lawyer at the HWS will represent her case in the local court of law.

Explaining the larger phenomenon of 'missing' husbands, Jamila says, "In rural Herat we have a big issue on our hands of young boys deserting their wives after migrating to neighbouring Iran in search of work and livelihoods. Once there, they marry and settle down with girls in the local camps. Herat has a big and growing problem of 'missing husbands', which is ruining the lives of thousands of young girls here. These girls need skills and education to support themselves and take care of their young, abandoned children."

Thirty female Community Development Council (CDC) members in Herat and Balkh provinces have been trained on such legal instruments to counter violence against women as stipulated in the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law (EVAW); the Shari'a Law, the civil law and other relevant legislations. The CDC members in turn have passed on knowledge to 250 women through trainings and coaching.

The Legal Help Centres were set up in partnership with the Department of Women's Affairs and the Department of Justice, along with various civil society organizations.

Over 100 paralegal volunteers have been trained in each province on basic legal issues, including the rights of women, gender-based violence and the handling of referral cases. These volunteers in turn have conducted further training on preventing violence against women for more than 7,000 villagers and community leaders.

Various Afghan laws for preventing violence against women have identified over 20 types of violence, including rape, forced marriage, self-immolation, child marriage, "baad" (the tradition of giving a girl or woman to settle a dispute) and others based on traditional practices which are prevalent in Afghan society.. It will, therefore, take considerable time before mass awareness and women's empowerment serve to secure a violence-free environment for the women of Afghanistan.

Kumar Tiku/30 Nov 2011