As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, IDLO has been showcasing its work in Afghanistan to help women overcome isolation and mistreatment.
When Nilofar’s case came to the attention of IDLO-trained legal staff in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, her tale was harrowing but not unusual. As a pre-pubescent child, she had been forced to marry a man six times her age. Years of assault and abuse culminated in Nilofar’s husband throwing her out. The man then declared her a fugitive, causing her to be arrested, convicted and jailed.
Nilofar’s offense was one of perception: it exists neither on paper, nor in reality. It took an IDLO-trained prosecutor to argue that ‘running away’ was not in fact punishable under Afghan law. Nilofar’s conviction was quashed on appeal.
Despite improved access to education and political representation in recent years, many Afghan women continue to be married off in childhood, sold to settle disputes, and locked in abusive relationships. Widespread ignorance of the law, and an apparent willingness to twist it to uphold traditional customs, have historically left victims with little recourse.
Nilofar’s release is being chalked up to the credit of what is known as a ‘VAW’ unit — the acronym stands for Violence Against Women. As well as in Mazar-i-Sharif, VAW units operate in Kabul, Herat, Kapisa and Parwan. The structures, set up by IDLO in partnership with the US and Italian governments, serve both the provincial capital and its surrounding districts: they are increasingly being seen as key to supporting women’s rights across the country.
Much of the VAW units’ visibility is the result of word-of-mouth, but also of IDLO-sponsored public information spots. They are part of a wider topical project supported by the organization: broadcasting by Afghan women, for Afghan women.
The Women’s Mirror program, on the Salam Watandar Radio Network, hosts a cross-section of women guests. Their stories are gradually changing Afghanistan's traditional society: whether teachers, business owners, journalists or cleaners, all are women who have defied social norms to work independently outside the home. Renée Carrico, IDLO Chief of Party in Afghanistan, describes them as “articulate and caring, possessed of pride and honor consistent with men in the work force”. The broadcasts, Ms Carrico says, aim to dispel the notion that working women are morally loose because they are not chaperoned by a mahram, or male companion.
While IDLO has been promoting women’s rights in many nations, or combating trafficking from India to Paraguay, Afghanistan is arguably its toughest challenge yet. Against a backdrop of guarded expectations, IDLO has chosen to publicize tales of hope and empowerment: its move is designed to suggest that for some Afghan women at least, the long, hard struggle for equality is starting reap results.