Part III: Enhancing Women’s Access to Justice
Note: this is an excerpt of the full report “Assessing Women’s Access to Justice in Afghanistan.” To request access to the full report, please contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barriers to Women’s Access to Justice
To fully understand access to justice in Afghanistan, we inverted the idea of access and focused on barriers as a starting point, creating a list of those relevant to Afghan women’s struggles in the justice sector. The barrier approach is focused on women’s experiences and perspectives and does not approach the issue of access to justice from the formal or the informal sector. Since women’s access to any judicial system is constrained by broader sociocultural, political, and economic factors, focusing on the FJS or IJS could neglect some women or take away their ability to negotiate within multiple systems.
Barriers to justice for women are diverse, including “institutional forms, functions, and culture, economic and geographic barriers, and socio-cultural values and attitudes preventing women from engaging with public dispute resolution mechanisms and law enforcement bodies.” Many barriers stem from factors other than gender, like poverty, illiteracy, or lack of legal knowledge, but they tend to affect women more than men.
In the context of Afghanistan, barriers to access to justice include challenges in the following areas:
Rights & entitlements
Legal assistance & representation
Legal awareness among judicial actors
Accessibility of justice institutions
Transparency & accountability
Enforcement of law & judicial decisions
Legal awareness among women and
Perceptions & trust of justice institutions
Our research focused on these areas, which span both the FJS and IJS, and assessed what role justice reform projects could play in addressing the barriers to access to justice. We found that in the justice reform sector in Afghanistan, there is significant room for improvement.
Many projects claimed to prioritize women, but only addressed a couple, if any of the barriers. Very few projects involved extensive strategies that would address several or all of the barriers preventing women from accessing fair justice outcomes.
There were some promising projects and strategies, but scarce impact evaluations make it hard to determine the objective success of such projects. What remains clear is that there is a significant need to expand justice reform projects to address more barriers to women’s access to justice, rather than focusing on improving the justice systems overall since that approach may create impact on the surface but fail to improve outcomes for women within discriminatory systems.
Recommendations for Enhancing Women’s Access to Justice
Given the complex barriers to justice in Afghanistan and the limitations of justice reform projects, strategies for improving women’s access to justice in Afghanistan must adopt a women-centered perspective grounded in the sociocultural contexts of impacted communities.
Our research indicates that relying on FJS or IJS as an entry point for justice reform is ineffectual because the underlying socioeconomic norms and power structures are prevalent in both. Trying to change or improve one system, or combine multiple systems, misses the more pressing issue: the need for social change. The women-centered user perspective focuses on the barriers that prevent women from accessing justice resolution mechanisms and just outcomes within the social context of Afghanistan, emphasizing the experiences of women in both FJS and IJS. It is a strategic response to legal pluralism, but also insurance of cultural competency.
One important issue that the women-centered approach addresses is the need to account for all women’s values within Afghan society. Projects seeking to improve access to justice for women must also be framed in a manner consistent with local values, such as by appealing to the rights of women within Islam. However, representing women’s voices can be complicated when conflicts arise between universal rights and cultural relativism. Because of women’s varying connections to Islam and conservative leanings, Western solutions may not align with their values and priorities.
However, an experience that many women in Afghanistan seem to share is the divergence between the Islamic narratives of virtue and social order, and the way that men manipulate that narrative. Many women report a discrepancy between the norms of their belief systems and the normative model of gender relations, suggesting that the issues women face may have less to do with the tenants of their faith than they do with men’s interpretations.
They desire the rights articulated within the framework of Islam but struggle to access those rights due to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. A woman’s closeness with custom and religious belief must not be equated to complacency with all the manifestations that the social structure offers in the name of tradition and faith. Afghan women are capable of desiring justice reform while maintaining their beliefs and social identity, and of pursuing change without adhering to an international ideal of justice.
The women-centered user approach, therefore, addresses women’s desire for change without imposing a starting point that conflicts with women’s values or beliefs, such as one that would necessarily subvert either the IJS or FJS. Instead, the approach coincides with widely-held grievances among Afghan women, that they desire accountability for injustices, violence, and inabilities to uphold their basic rights and those that they perceive as important.
Supporting Women-Centered Reform
Though the women-centered approach must always emphasize women as the focal point, justice reform must also employ other actors in their design and implementation. Not only do women continue to have limited voice in Afghan public discourse, but efforts to improve conditions for women risk being perceived as a threat to tradition, or even as a foreign agenda forced upon Afghanistan by outsiders. Therefore, influential local actors must use their position to advocate for women and lend legitimacy to women-centered efforts.
According to the British and Irish Agencies Afghan Group, “in Afghan society obtaining the support of male members of the family, male community leaders and male politicians is necessary to create sustainable women’s rights [programs].” Excluding men can make them dismissive or even hostile, and their participation is necessary as long as women have limited power in public discourse.
Community and religious leaders can also contribute legitimacy to outsider projects and mitigate the risk of male community members retaliating against women or preventing their participation. In Afghanistan, the inclusion of religious and community leaders increases social acceptance of programs and gives women an increased sense of security participating in projects. Their inclusion and support can catalyze otherwise potentially limited participation. In the long-term, co-option of men and community leaders can instigate the social process of norm internalization, where a norm transforms from a place of limited recognition or even opposition, to social acceptance.
Justice reform projects can also benefit from involving civil society actors (CSAs) like local NGOs or community paralegals. These insider agents are familiar with the sociocultural contexts in specific communities, and know where and how to challenge the system. In addition to providing crucial local knowledge and advice, CSAs also legitimize messages that support Afghan women’s agendas but have yet to be accepted across society. Furthermore, many civil society organizations (CSOs) committed to improving women’s rights already exist in Afghanistan and support activities relevant to those of donor-funded justice reform projects.
Overall, our research offers the following recommendations based on our main findings:
1. Legal pluralism remains a deeply embedded feature of Afghan institutions.
Justice reform projects must acknowledge all systems of justice.
Justice reform projects must avoid overly ambitious attempts to combine or integrate informal systems into a formal system.
Justice reform projects should protect Afghan women’s ability to seek justice through whichever system they prefer in various contexts.
2. Legal systems in Afghanistan are inextricable from sociocultural contexts that disadvantage women.
Projects aimed at changing social norms or behavior change intervention must be culturally appropriate, contextually grounded, and supported by local institutions.
Addressing any system without acknowledging the contextual conditions will fail to improve women’s access to justice and may perpetuate inequalities.
3. Barriers to women’s access to justice span both the formal and informal justice systems because they are tied to underlying social norms embedded in institutions.
Justice reform projects must adopt a user perspective and focus strategies on women’s experience pursuing justice in order to create effective change.
4. There is an unmet need to address barriers to justice for women and engage with their priorities.
Despite the diversity of women’s values and their embeddedness in Afghan social norms, the women-centered barrier approach would lead to improvements for women.
Addressing priorities should be based on local-level needs assessment for women.
5. Actors aside from women - state actors, religious leaders, men in communities - could be incentivized and motivated to contribute to sustained change.
Actors with influence in Afghan society must be incorporated into women-centered projects to ensure sustained progress.
6. Progress must be incremental and sustained over time to achieve long-term improved access to justice for women in the long-term.
Progress in addressing women’s access to justice will require incremental change and sustained progress over time.
This report’s theory of change offers guidance for the first stages of intervention that will enact initial progress, but change must be sustained by community support and engagement for long-term impact and transformation.
To read more about our project analysis, geographic analysis, theory of change, or research limitations, please request full access to our report by contacting the authors at email@example.com.
 Marchiori, Framework for Measuring Access to Justice, 141.
 Huma Ahmed-Ghosh, “Voices of Afghan women: Human rights and economic development.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 8, No. 1 (August 2006) 122-124.
 BAAG, Briefing Note: Understanding Gender Issues and Programming in Afghanistan. (London, British & Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, 2014)