In October of 2009, the Gender Department of International Development Law Organization (IDLO) conducted a focus group of women victims of violence. The purpose of the focus group was to gather information about the issues affecting the investigation and prosecution of crimes against women from the victim-perspective. This paper highlights the importance and effectiveness of utilizing the focus group method in order to bring the voice of women into the realm of institutional reform by presenting a focus group with women victims of violence in Afghanistan. Through exploring the critical issue of improving the formal system response to violence against women in Afghanistan, focus group results illustrate the power and potency of identifying the needs of women in shaping the system responses. As a result of the findings of the focus group, recommendations are made to further strengthen the formal justice system response to violence against women in Afghanistan.
The concept of interviewing the constituents of the ever changing landscape of laws and policies designed to address violence against women seems to be unheard of in Afghanistan and certainly under-utilized in the international development context. Asking the population most affected by institutional, government and judicial reforms is surprisingly a mechanism not popular among the international experts drawn upon to assist in rebuilding the country. This strategy is a departure from the norm, which typically is driven and informed by international experts and outside perspectives and experiences that are transferred and applied to international development work.
International development work in Afghanistan is at an all-time high, with unprecedented numbers of consultants, experts, international organizations and for-profit development firms implementing projects across the country in attempts to stabilize and rebuild society and rule of law. One area that has received recent media attention is the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan in a post-Taliban era. Popular news stories have covered the grassroots movement that has resulted in women’s shelters cropping up in Kabul and some of other provinces. These women’s shelters, run by NGO’s such as Women for Afghan Women, provide shelter and food to women who are forced to flee their homes and families often due to unimaginable violence and abuse.
Violence against women in Afghanistan is a pervasive and deeply rooted problem, embedded in cultural norms, customs and harmful traditional practices that include rape, “honor” killings, baad, forced and early marriage, domestic violence and violence in public life. Crimes of violence against women have not, in practice, been viewed as crimes at all; they have not been pursued by the authorities, not investigated by police or prosecutors, and not prosecuted for violating the law. Until the creation of the VAW Unit, the Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan had not kept statistics for crimes of violence against women, and crimes such as rape and domestic or sexual assault and forced marriage are noticeable absent from the National Crime Statistics Unified Report for 2006-2007.
Women who are active in the public sphere are in great danger for working to end violence against women. Sitara Achakzai, a Kandahar Provincial Council member was killed in April of 2009, Malala Kakar, a high ranking female police officer was killed in September of 2008, and Sofia Amajan, head of the Women’s Affairs Department in Kandahar was murdered in 2006. While women and girls are bravely going to school and running for public office, giving hope to future generations that fundamental human rights will equally apply to women in Afghanistan, the killers of these women and of the many other Afghan women and girls who courageously step out of the shadows to transform their country are not being brought to justice.
Afghan criminal law outlines acts of violence against women which are criminal offenses; however they are rarely prosecuted or punished. In fact, due to entrenched cultural beliefs about the status of women as property, women victims are often punished instead of the perpetrators. This is evidenced by the large numbers of women who are in prison for running away from home or for adultery (which is often a rape case that lacked enough evidence to prosecute the male offender), as the justice system typically does not distinguish adultery from rape, even in the case of the victim.
Recognizing the need for a concentrated effort to investigate and prosecute crimes of violence against women, the Attorney General’s Office of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan partnered with the international community to create a Violence Against Women Unit. The VAW Unit included specially chosen and trained prosecutors who would take these cases seriously and follow the letter of the law from initiating an investigation through sentencing, without succumbing to bribes or cultural excuses to mitigate violence against women. The success of the VAW Unit, however, will depend on the ability to be accessible to the women who are victims of violence. Thus, efforts to make the justice system accessible to women victims of violence was a critical part of planning the VAW Unit by informing the design, policies, practices and protocols of the Unit.
The focus group that is the subject of this article was arranged as part of a planning process to establish a specialized Violence Against Women (VAW) Unit within the Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan. The importance of using this group forum to achieve information from women victims of violence can not be understated; women victims of violence in Afghanistan are largely invisible, thrown away, forgotten, maltreated, blamed, and considered to be tainted or “bad” women. By bringing their voice into the process of system reform, the technique emphasizes empowerment and strength – it tells the women that they have something to contribute and that their perspective matters.
The experiences of women victims of violence, particularly those currently residing in shelter, were critical to understanding what parts of the justice system needed to be changed and in what ways. Specifically two objectives were intended to help guide the formation of the dedicated Violence Against Women Unit: to identify women victims’ of violence perceptions of the formal criminal justice response, and to collect narratives about women’s experiences of violence and the formal system responses to crimes against women.
The focus group was organized in a traditional fashion; participants were gathered in a large group room at the shelter where they were given an overview of the confidentiality of information shared, the purpose and objectives of the focus group, how the information gathered in the focus group would be used, and a series of open-ended questions related to their experiences, needs and perceptions. A total of 28 women participated in the focus group, from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, including women from different geographic areas within and outside Afghanistan. They also represented a spectrum of ages and a broad range of experiences as victims of violence.
Throughout the focus group, women openly expressed their perceptions of police, prosecutors and other institutions involved in addressing violence against women. During the course of the focus group I was careful to ask follow up questions to narrow participants’ responses to their experiences and perceptions of prosecutors specifically, as the purpose of the group was to impact and inform the responses and policies of the specialized Violence Against Women Unit within the Office of the Attorney General. To bring the voices of the victims of violence into the planning process for this innovative unit that, in theory, was supposed to meet their needs; but in reality the Violence Against Women Unit was simply something that was a necessary requirement  under the National Justice Sector Strategy of Afghanistan.
The results of the focus group revealed some common perceptions and experiences about system and community responses to violence against women. These perceptions were informed by the participants’ real experiences, and in their words one could see the struggle and frustration in seeking justice in an unstable and transitional environment. Below is a summary of focus group participants’ responses divided into three themes: Prosecution of the Perpetrators of Violence, Prosecution and Blaming of Victims, Attempts to Seek Assistance through Other Mechanisms.
1. Prosecution of the Perpetrators of Violence
Among the participants, almost no one reported that the person responsible for the violence was investigated or prosecuted by the authorities. Most women reported seeking help from either the police or Ministry of Women’s Affairs but that the perpetrators of violence were pursued as a result of their cases.
One woman reported that her father used to beat her, tie her hands and feet and lock her in a room. He then sold her to a man who also beat her and abused her. She stated that she fled to Kabul because in the past she had gone to a police station in her own area but they returned her to her father, where she suffered a greater beating. In Kabul, she made her way to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs however, once there she was accused of lying. She reported that it has now been four years since she fled the violence and as far as she knows, nothing has ever happened with her case.
“They never cared about my case and always when I asked them they said there is nothing we can do and you have to stay in here. It is now four years that ministry of women affairs has my case and I am still in the shelter, they are not taking care of my case and they are not working for us.”
Another woman, who reported that she fled her home after suffering serious violence at the hands of her brother-in-law and mother-in-law, sought assistance after a neighbor told her about the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. However, those who beat her were never punished.
“Now it is almost 4 year and a half and I am still in the shelter…, in the ministry of women affairs they didn’t care about my case and they didn’t follow it up and they said that we can’t send your case to court since my husband is missing and court will not process divorce in the absence of my husband.”
More than one participant spoke of forced marriage as the result of baad and the violence surrounding these cases that caused them to flee to the shelter. Their cases did not result in an investigation or prosecution of the husbands or fathers who engaged in this illegal practice.
“I also insist that there should be a way to stop or at least decrease the number of baad and badal cases, the criminals who commit these crimes should be introduced to court and be punished by the court so no one dare to commit these kind of crimes again.”
Most of the women reported seeking a divorce after fleeing a violent situation or forced marriage, however they reported feeling that the system did not respond to their wishes to prosecute those who are violent towards them or to expedite the process to allow them to separate from their abuser.
“The prosecutors make the process long and they took so much long time to present a case to court. Our husbands should be in detention centers at least for one week or two weeks, so then they would know and learn from their mistakes…”
Overall there was a generalized perception that those who commit violence against women are not investigated, prosecuted or punished. In fact, all participants reported feeling that they themselves were blamed for the violence.
“We all want to see the criminals to suffer and to be punished and we want the Ministry of Women Affairs to take our cases seriously and give us our rights.”
2. Prosecution and Blaming of Victims
Almost universally the women reported being blamed or arrested themselves for escaping the violence.
“The criminal should also be arrested and there should be justice.”
“They way we suffer they should also suffer. They should know and pay for their bad behaviors. They are the one who should be blamed not us, why do they always blame us?”
“We hope that one day they suffer the way that we do.”
“When we escape from the house, we are not escaping because we want to, but we escape because they leave us no choice. And if we could solve our problem inside the house we would never escape or do something like that, we would already solve our problem by our own in the house. And if we escape why does the society blame us and act as though we are the criminals. And the real person who did this all and who is the one who should be blamed is free and the society respects him.
Multiple women mentioned feeling that prosecutors did not act with sensitivity towards them, and the participants spoke of their perception of corruption within the formal system in cases of violence against women. Overall this was consistent with all participants’ lack of confidence in the system responses to crimes against women.
“In our society the only thing that works are either money or knowing someone who is in the high position. They don’t care about the truth and about the justice they only care about the money and high society friends that they have.”
“Prosecutors that prosecute us are always behaving badly and blaming us for what happened to us and not caring to arrest those who commit the crime. And most of them ask for the money and they don’t listen to us.”
One woman expressed her believe that even when a criminal case is brought, the prosecutors and the court do not believe the victim and it is difficult to prove the violence occurred.
“When the cases go to prosecutors they usually take side of the criminals and they defend them, and in the court also the judges blame us and take the side of our husbands. The court doesn’t believe us and asks for the witnesses and we can’t find any witness because no one from our husband’s family or relatives want to come and say something against them.”
One woman who reported that she was kidnapped and raped, and then forced to marry her husband, fled her home to the shelter. She currently has a criminal case, but it appeared to be against her for running away, rather than against her husband for the rape and kidnapping.
“My husband kidnapped me on the way to school and then raped me and then married me. When I asked for the support from my family he told everyone that I was the one who ran away with him and everybody trusted him, including my family. And they didn’t care about me and what I was saying, no one heard my voice, everybody blamed me for what happened to me. And now in the court the judges do the same to me, they blame me because I don’t have any witnesses. Whatever the prosecutor and my husband say in court the judges believe and they even don’t care about what I say!”
3. Attempts to Seek Assistance Through Other Mechanisms
Participants were asked if they had sought assistance from other mechanisms before leaving their homes, specifically if they tried to address the violence through the traditional or informal justice system. This is particularly relevant given today’s emphasis on strengthening and validating traditional dispute resolution mechanisms in transitioning and post-conflict environments. In this focus group, many women reported seeking assistance from their families, elders and jirgas but with no success.
“I went to the jirga and had all the family members together but they couldn’t solve the problem. And then I went to my parents’ house because my husband kept beating me. And then one day he came to my parents’ house as well and took me out and started to beat me and that was when I escaped from him and came to Kabul.”
“The Jirga couldn’t solve the problem that is why I am in the shelter now.”
“They Jirga also usually takes the men’s side and don’t hear us.”
Women generally reported that running away was a last resort; after all other options had been explored with no success at stopping the violence. They expressed their belief that the only option that remained was to escape the violence and seek assistance from the formal civil and criminal justice systems, through the attorneys representing them in divorce matters and criminal cases filed with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
“Why do people think that girls who are running away cause a bad reputation and bad image to the family? People should know it is not our choice but we have no other way!”
As recent as 2009, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that the human rights of women in Afghanistan are still largely ignored, and that violence is “closely linked to a deeply entrenched culture of impunity that is, in part, an outcome of decades of conflict and indifference to a justice agenda that would also allow for a transition from, and draw a line under, a long history of egregious human rights violations.” The situation for women in Afghanistan is not improving. Despite nine years of international presence and development work, the safety of half the population remains at grave risk of violence because the transitional government has failed to address the human rights of women. Even more disturbing is the lack of voice and agency that women victims of violence have in informing reform initiatives and government responses, however minimal, (to international pressure and presence) to violence against women.
Any practitioner, lawyer, social worker or gender justice “expert” working in Afghanistan would find it immeasurably frustrating to recognize the enormous gap between law and practice, between rights in theory and actualization of rights, between policy and custom as they pertain to women’s human right to live a life free from violence, and between the international and national system players and the voice of the community of women they are mandated to serve.
On the face, progress and on-paper commitments have been made. The Constitution of Afghanistan secures gender equality, Afghanistan is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as well as other international instruments, and recently the President signed the Eliminating Violence Against Women (EVAW) law. However, despite these advancements, women in Afghanistan are still suffering numerous human rights abuses in the form of gender-based violence. Additionally, the perspectives of women are noticeably absent in process of institutional reform and in helping to shape system responses to the very human rights issues that affect them.
The results of the focus group illustrate the chasm between law and practice in Afghanistan when it comes to violence against women. The experiences heard through their words make real the need for continued improvement of the formal justice system, and most specifically in making it accessible and effective in meaningfully meeting the needs of women victims of violence.
This focus group of women victims of violence was designed to provide space for the voices of women victims of violence to be heard, and to inform future policies and practices on violence against women in Afghanistan. The following recommendations for institutional reforms were made by focus group participants to improve victim satisfaction with the criminal justice process.
A. Recommendations to Inform the Prosecution of the Perpetrators of Violence
Many women reported being afraid of prosecutors and feeling blamed for the violence. When asked about the prosecution of perpetrators of violence, participants in the focus group stressed the importance of developing a system whereby prosecutors:
- Focus their efforts on the men who are violent and prosecuting them
- Ask more questions to get at the facts about the violence
- Punish those who are violent or practice illegal acts (i.e. baad) in order to set an example and assist in the overall reduction of violence and illegal practices
- Seek to resolve cases better and in a short amount of time, without susceptibility to corruption and bribery
B. Recommendations to Address the Practice of Victim Prosecution
The responses women got when seeking assistance overwhelmingly was that they (the women themselves) were prosecuted or blamed for the violence from members of both the formal and informal justice system. Participants reported that they were either arrested for running away form home and jailed or blamed for what happened to them. This blame was reported by participants as manifested throughout the process, from the police response when seeking assistance, to the attitude by the prosecutor investigating the case, to the relevant Ministries designed to assist them with problems. With respect to prosecuting the victims of violence, participants stressed the importance of designing policies whereby prosecutors:
- Focus on the person who committed the actual violence/crime
- Cease the practice of arresting a victim who runs away from violence
- Develop the skills and attitudes necessary for victim-sensitive responses and investigation techniques
- Pursue and investigate the criminals who perpetrate violence against women
C. Recommendations Informed by Women’s Attempts to Seek Assistance through Other Mechanisms
Many women reported seeking assistance with ending the violence through their families, elders, jirgas, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. While their stories and the exact nature of their situations all varied, universally the women reported that if the violence could have been solved through other means it would have. This is particularly important for internationals working with the formal system responses to violence against women, as it demonstrates that this is a system of last resort; the final stop. Specifically, in relation to the victim-blaming for leaving home, women reported that if the problem of violence could have be solved through their own efforts or the efforts of these other mechanisms it would have been done. Additionally, most participants did not report having a positive experience seeking assistance through the government institutions. Despite the changing landscape and new initiatives such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the new Family Response Units within the police department and the presence of a wide international community preparing legislation designed to combat violence against women. With respect to attempts to seek assistance through other mechanisms the participants stressed the importance of:
- Prosecutors understanding that often all other avenues to resolve the violence have been tried and exhausted by the victim
- Ministry of Women’s Affairs and other government institutions responding to women victims of violence in a non-blaming manner
- Jirgas referring cases to the proper government authorities and formal justice system
- All formal mechanisms seeking to resolve cases in a more expedient and timely fashion
D. Author’s Recommendations
There are several additional recommendations this paper proposes for strengthening the formal system response to violence against women. Specifically, improved coordination among the various pieces of the justice system (i.e. police, prosecutors, judges) is a necessary next step in improving women’s access to justice in Afghanistan. An additional area for exploration is the creation of specialized courts to address violence against women, which have begun emerging across the globe and are supported by the same principles of specialized police and prosecutor units to best address these culturally complex crimes. A third recommendation is to increase the use of focus groups of communities affected by development work, in order to best inform institutional reforms and meet the needs of those affected by said reforms. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, increased and ongoing communication and coordination between civil society sector NGO’s and VAW Unit would greatly strengthen the formal justice system response to violence against women. NGO’s, shelters, women’s organization and civil legal aid organizations are working directly with women victims of violence, thus hearing their voices and using their experiences to guide practice and system responses would provide opportunities to continue improving women’s access to justice in Afghanistan.
This paper provides insight into the benefits of utilizing focus groups to inform institutional reform to address violence against women in the international development context. It also highlights the critical issue of violence against women in Afghanistan by providing a forum for their voice and experiences to be heard. Focus groups are a useful research tool that provides a forum for participants’ voices to be heard and transform practice, which is vital in environments where certain groups are marginalized or have limited access to public life. This is particularly true in the context of Afghanistan, where half of the country’s population has minimal opportunity to participate in public life and where crimes against women proceed with impunity.
The participants in this focus group, victims of violence against women, reported that they used every means available to resolve the violence, including appealing to their families and local jirgas, before resorting to running away. They tried to make their voice heard. However, when seeking assistance from police, prosecutors and Ministry of Women’s Affairs, women reported that the perpetrators of violence against them were not punished and that they, the victims, were blamed for the violence and for running away.
As illustrated by the voices of the women recorded here, women victims of violence face great challenges and until the formal and informal systems hear them and respond to their real needs, these systems, however transitional, will fail to work for them. The creation of the Violence Against Women Unit within the Attorney Genera’s Office of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was a monumental leap forward to providing access to justice to women victims of violence. By continuing the hold focus groups in the international development context the voices of marginalized communities can play an important role in helping to guide reconstruction and reform. A number of institutional changes are recommended in this report that would further assist women victims of violence in accessing justice and instill a greater sense of confidence and public trust in the criminal justice system as a whole.
The author wishes to acknowledge the brave women who participated in this focus group, as without their generosity we would not have had the privilege to learn from their experience; everyone at Women for Afghan Women; and Lailuma Nasiri, the quietly strong and brilliant Gender Project Officer who made everything possible.
 Baad refers to the practice of trading women as compensatory damages in disputes among families.
 Human Rights, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kabul. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva. SILENCE IS VIOLENCE: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan, 8 July, 2009.
 Attorney General’s National Crime Statistics Unified Report, www.ago.gov.af/CONTENT/CrimStat/NationalCriStat/NationalCrimeStisticsEng.html
 Participants in the focus group were identified through a national NGO serving Women in Afghanistan called Women for Afghan Women (WAW), and included women residing in a confidential women’s shelter located in Kabul.
 All identifying information has been changed or removed in order to protect the identities of the participants.
 The Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan, under the National Justice Sector Strategy, is committed to establish the country’s first specialized Violence Against Women prosecution unit.
 National Justice Sector Strategy (NJSS), Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Afghanistan National Development Strategy, 2008.
 Participants often referred to their “cases” as meaning both or either the criminal and civil cases, there was limited distinction made by participants between divorce cases and criminal prosecutions against them or the perpetrator of violence.
 See footnote 2.
 Badal refers to the traditional practice of trading a girl from one family for a girl in another family for the purposes of marriages, particularly in cases where families lack the funds to pay a bride price for their sons to get married.
 Referring to her husband who she says perpetrated violence against her.
 Human Rights, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Kabul and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Geneva, Silence is Violence: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan, July 8, 2009.
 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2003, Article 22, Chapter 2, Article 1 states “The citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.”
 Eliminating Violence Against Women, published in the Ministry of Justice Official Gazette, August 2009
 Jirgas are a form of traditional dispute resolution based on customary law
 Participants reported that often jirgas will not take a case or if taken, will blame the victim for the violence.
 Specialized courts to address domestic violence cases exist in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia, specialized courts to address sexual assault cases exist in the United States and South Africa, and recently Liberia created a specialized Gender Court to coordinate with their specialized violence against women unit within the prosecutor’s office.
 A full copy of the Focus Group Report was distributed to the Head of the newly established Violence Against Women Unit at the Attorney General’s Office in Afghanistan, along with copies for all prosecutors assigned to the specialized VAW Unit, with hope that the voices of the women would be heard by those given the new responsibility and international credibility of responding to violence against women cases.