Even nurses need lawyers: UNDP funds legal aid for women
Nangarhar, 6 March 2016 – At 19 years of age, Gul Bashra had completed school, finished two years of midwifery training, and was all set to realize her lifelong dream of bringing better healthcare to her fellow Afghans in Nangarhar.
There was just one problem. As a child, she’d been engaged to one of her cousins. And now he had other ideas about what a woman should do.
“I studied 14 years to serve my country’s women, and this boy just wanted me to stay at home and do housework!” she explains. “It really hurt me to think about this.”
Afghanistan made huge strides toward gender equality as Gul grew up, but in many places – particularly the kind of rural areas where Gul is from – women are still not free to make fundamental choices about their own lives.
In Gul’s case, poverty and discrimination had both lined up against her and her dreams. Back when Gul was young, her father owed money to her uncle. Since he couldn’t pay, he suggested that Gul be engaged to the uncle’s son as a form of repayment.
“When we got old enough to marry, I went my uncle’s house to try to persuade them to cancel the engagement,” says Gul. “But they just pressed ahead, even though I told them I didn’t want to marry anyone.”
Eventually, the boy’s family gave in. But they forced Gul to sign a letter saying she would remain single forever.
- Gul Bashra had completed school, finished two years of midwifery training, and was all set to realize her lifelong dream of bringing better healthcare to her fellow Afghans in Nangarhar.
- As a child, she’d been engaged to one of her cousins, whom she did not want to marry.
- UNDP’s Legal Aid Grant Facility helped Gul escape from the unwanted marriage.
- The Facility currently supports 449 lawyers across Afghanistan, including 136 women, and has dealt with nearly 3,000 cases.
After the letter was signed, the uncle’s son married someone else. But still the story went on. The uncle’s family was determined to hold Gul to her forced agreement, and if anyone from any other family suggested marriage, they threatened them.
By now, Gul was at the medical institute. One day one she heard a lecture on Afghanistan’s laws and its independent lawyers associations. Gul shared her own problems with her teacher and he referred her to the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association in Nangarhar where UNDP’s Legal Aid Grant Facility funds lawyers to offer free legal assistance to women like Gul.
“There was a pale girl waiting for me in the lobby”, recalls Marwa Fazli, a lawyer at the association. “She looked terrified and was adamant that no one should find out she had come. I sat with her and she tearfully told me what had happened, all the while insisting that no one could could find out or she’d be shamed in the community.”
Marwa negotiated with the boy’s family. She then drafted a letter stating that the original engagement had been forced, and presented this to the judicial department. But they refused to act without the boy’s consent, and the boy wanted nothing to do with it.
Still Marwa didn’t give up. Since she works in areas where justice doesn’t necessarily function as it should, much of his work involves negotiation and mediation to try to get the best possible result for his clients. Eventually, she reached a deal with the boy and his family: they’d leave Gul to get on with her life if Gul’s family covered the costs of the engagement she’d never wanted. It wasn’t perfect, but it finally freed Gul from harassment, and the agreement was ratified by the court.
“Mentally, I am in a much better state now I’ve resolved this huge problem,” says Gul. “I can carry on working in the government hospital and enjoying university. I can also choose my future life partner on my own terms.”
As a lawyer, Marwa Fazli knows well that the Afghan Constitution mandates equal treatment for men and women before the law – and also requires the state to provide lawyers for the poorest. But she also knows that reality hasn’t yet caught up with legislation, and that most young women are still afraid to pursue legal cases.
There are many more Gul’s out there, and we need more Marwas.
The Legal Aid Grant Facility is part of UNDP’s Justice and Human Rights for Afghanistan (JHRA) project. The Facility currently supports 449 lawyers across Afghanistan, including 136 women, and has dealt with nearly 3,000 cases. Funding comes from Italy, Denmark, Switzerland and UNDP.
* All the names in this story have been changed.