Kristine Herman of the Center for Court Innovation spent three months in Afghanistan helping the attorney general establish the nation's first unit dedicated to prosecuting cases of violence against women. She spoke with the Center's Director of Communications Robert V. Wolf about her experience.
The following is a transcript:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, Director of Communications at the Center for Court Innovation. And today I’m talking with a colleague of mine, Kristine Herman who’s the director of Global Gender Initiatives and also our associate director of Domestic Violence Programs. Kristine spent three months in Afghanistan from September to December 2009. Thanks, Kristine, for taking the time to talk to me.
KRISTINE HERMAN: My pleasure.
WOLF: Tell me about this. You went to Afghanistan for three months. What brought about this trip?
HERMAN: Well, there is an international organization called the International Developmental Law Organization, and they had reached out to me here at the Center to ask if I'd be interested in going to help the attorney general of Afghanistan create the first violence against women prosecution unit.
WOLF: So tell me, how do you go about designing and establishing a unit like this? What sort of resources are at your disposal? What about the laws? What about staff? And perhaps this is too much for one question, but what is it like for you coming in internationally, not speaking the language, and not even necessarily knowing their particular legal system?
HERMAN: Right. Well, I mean that is a very big question. I think in some respects this was a perfect project for me to be able to do coming from nine years at the Center for Court Innovation and the expertise that we have here because the skills and the principles in creating a specialized project of any kind were very transferable.
So the issues, you know, that come up in creating this and the challenges and the process were not that different from working with folks in Australia or in Michigan or, you know, really those kinds of things were perfectly transferable. I was able to do a process that was step-by-step what I would want to do in any jurisdiction.
WOLF: Just give me a quick overview what some of those steps are and you're landing, you had three months.
HERMAN: Yeah, yeah.
WOLF: So what are some of the steps that you went through?
HERMAN: So the very first step was having a planning team created. And so, some of that is sort of who we would identify as needing to be at the table to plan this, but also having the Attorney General’s Office decide who are they appointing to be part of this planning process and working closely with them.
Then, of course, what we do at the Center all the time, we wanted to look at what's happening right now with any of these cases: what happens, what's the current practice? so finding out what the problem looks like there on the ground from the victim’s perspective, the social service providers’, you know, and then how many cases make it to the police, then the prosecutors, and then eventually the courts.
And what’s interesting trying to do that kind of analysis in Afghanistan is there’s no data-collection system. So there isn’t an ability to do a caseload analysis for someone who’s looking up in a database, how many cases were reported last year. This really required us to have individualized meetings with every piece of the process and ask them questions about what they do keep as far as data, which is all on paper, and what anecdotally they think is happening.
And some statistics and numbers exist. The Attorney General’s Office keeps some loose statistics in one department for one area what it's sort of, you know, and you can kind of infer from that what the problem really is.
The next part of the process was really a combination of logistics like supports around space, office stuff, supplies, the idea that they will need to have staff, how many staff?
In addition to that kind of logistical stuff, we set apart to really draft protocols and procedures and policies around every issue that’s meaningful to a specialized unit. So this planning document envisions what are the screening processes, what is the case eligibility requirements, how they will flow through the unit from referral all the way to disposition and appeals.
Every step of the way that I'm talking about was done through translators. Every piece of paper was written in our native languages, translated through a translation department, and then given to the other partners to comment on in their native language, and translated back into the other language.
WOLF: How many languages were you working with?
HERMAN: Well, a grand total of three although the dominant one was there was Dari, and then my language English, but there were some folks who speak Pashto.
WOLF: You didn’t mention anything about having to change the laws. And I know from previous conversations, you said that in fact the laws are on the books to protect women. But perhaps you could talk to me about some of the cultural obstacles you encountered or the observations you have about the culture or the lack of enforcement for these laws in the past.
HERMAN: Yes. Absolutely. I mean the fascinating thing about Afghanistan is that on the books, on the face of it the laws are really good. The constitution is new and cutting edge. It's very, you know, egalitarian and anti-discrimination; so it’s really a powerful constitution. And in fact, while I was there, right before I got there, they passed a Violence Against Women Act.
So they have a law now that’s specifically around eliminating violence against women which even specifies further crimes against women, very detailed; so forced prostitution, child marriage.
What’s interesting about it is that despite these laws being on the books, there has been in the past zero enforcement of these laws because of really traditional cultural practices and attitudes and beliefs about the status of women in society.
WOLF: So for example?
HERMAN: So for example, there are some traditional cultural practices called “baad” and “badal”. And what those—each of those means respectively is that if you have a dispute with your neighbor, with a person in another village or there’s a land dispute or a fight between families, one way to settle that is to trade daughters.
Those daughters who are traded become not just servants and slaves within the new household, but then they’re also married off to some much older male family member within the home often. So you’ve got, you know, forced labor; you’ve got child or forced marriage. And that’s a cultural practice that exists. Selling of girls and daughters, it's also a traditional practice.
The number one reason women in Afghanistan are in prison is for a crime that is not on the books—of running away. So running away from home is a crime simply because you don’t have the right to not be in the home that you live in or were bought into or sold into. So that’s some of the cultural practices that are in direct conflict with the law.
WOLF: So the law says you, a woman, can choose where she wants to live.
HERMAN: Absolutely. The law says that practices of baad or badal are illegal. The law says you cannot beat your wife, for example. However, it is a very common practice to beat your wife in Afghanistan; and it is culturally acceptable if she behaves in a way that you don’t find acceptable, that's your response.
WOLF: The law now protects them. How recent are these laws? Is this all a result of the Taliban being removed?
WOLF: And under the Taliban’s code, it affirmed these cultural practices?
HERMAN: I think that the Taliban really reinforced, perpetuated, and even hardened some of these cultural practices. You know, some of the laws that are good laws aren’t actually brand new. I mean the constitution is new, but some of the criminal laws are actually from the 60s and from earlier times.
And so, you know, in the U.S. when we talk about domestic violence, we are necessarily having to create a new law. In New York you are prosecuted for assault, right?
HERMAN: And similarly, in Afghanistan they could always apply that crime in a case of violence against women. There’s been a horrific assault or beating or, you know, some of the horrible cases where I interviewed women who had their nose chopped off by the husband’s family and their ears chopped off by the husband’s family. Those family members were never prosecuted.
And of course, under the law, even from the ’60s they could have been prosecuted and they were not. So it’s really application of existing law that is lacking there and that sort of cultural will to address violence against women in a meaningful way.
What was – I want to not be too negative here. What was very, very, very promising and optimistic was that women in society 100 percent recognized this chasm between on the books and application. And they 100 percent were totally self-aware of the problem culturally and traditionally with the practices that women and girls were being subjected to and what they deserved under the law on a basic human rights level. They understood that huge difference.
And so, there is a very big community of women who are working on this issue in Afghanistan, who are writing about this issue, who are opening up shelters to help women victims of violence.
And you know, there is not a lot of attention paid to it as sort of on the larger political sphere. But it is definitely not something that’s been imposed from the outside, but it’s something that within the country itself that, you know, 50 percent of the population is well aware that there is maltreatment.
WOLF: You finished your work in December. The unit—you established it. I understand when you came back that they have yet to actually have a case. What’s the latest word that you’ve heard from your colleagues in Afghanistan?
HERMAN: Right. So in January they finished a 20-hour training for the nine Violence Against Women prosecutors and an additional seven key defense attorneys that we wanted to be really, really aggressively trained on violence-against-women issues. These are defense attorneys who frequently are the attorneys for the women because often these issues get very muddied and muddled and women victims of violence often are prosecuted (a) for running away, or (b) if they're a victim of rape but they can’t prove the rape case but you can prove intercourse outside of marriage, then the victim herself is the one who goes to prison.
So you’ve got frequently the women victims of violence have their own attorneys to help them with this very complicated issue of criminal issues and family issues and divorce issues because you really can't easily divorce or separate in Afghanistan or leave home. And they opened a unit, and they started receiving referrals. I think the first two big cases they got were both cases of rape of children, girl children within families; so by some extended family members, by brothers-in-law and multiple uncles. And so, by taking these early cases that are really so egregious that most people would look and go, ‘This isn’t an okay practice. Culturally, it’s not okay. You know, society is not okay.’
WOLF: Because it’s involving young children.
HERMAN: Exactly. It’s a little bit more of a sympathetic population.
HERMAN: You know, it’s helping to set the tone that these cases are important and we should be taking them seriously and they’re going forward with those. So they started to receive their first cases. We’re pretty excited about it.
WOLF: Do you think you’ve taken anything back with you, whether it’s lessons learned, things that didn't work?
HERMAN: Well, there’s certainly two things that come immediately to mind. The first one is simply that you can do a lot in a short amount of time if you have very willing partners. So you know, we often, at least in the projects I worked on, engage in a planning process that can take six months, nine months, 12 months. But truth be told, I really found out from my experience there that you can do a lot in three months if you are meeting three times a week and five days a week you’re trying to, you know, draft new agenda, you know, exchange documents, give each other draft versions of things.
We did in three months what it normally would take me back here, you know, 10 to 12 months. So I felt very comfortable and confident that we can do a lot more with what we’re doing if we decided that we wanted to and that we had partners who are really engaged as much as we’re engaged. So that’s a really exciting thing.
WOLF: And you were cut off from family and friends.
HERMAN: Yeah. And then the other lesson I guess I learned was one I knew going into it, but it was just so reinforced coming back. It was the importance of the community engagement piece.
And I think that no one there really knew or thought that there was that much value in engaging the community as part of the process for planning the unit. And I kind of had learned from my experience with the Center that this is something we do, and there’s a real valid reason for doing it. And I don’t know if I could articulate it as well as I can now, which is that, you know, the success of this unit hinges upon victims of violence against women and their lawyers or their shelter workers.
And so, if we hadn’t engaged the community on an aggressive level by meeting with them individually, by doing focus groups with women victims of violence, by visiting the shelters, by us laying the groundwork to really have the community feel like they helped shape it, it would be a unit that existed with no referrals.
WOLF: I’m very curious to know what life was like for you there. Can you give me a sense of what your day-to-day life was like?
HERMAN: Sure. Sure. Well, first off, as a woman there, it was very important to be respectful of the culture. So for that, it meant that I always covered my hair. I always wore very loose clothes that often came to my knees.
Towards the end of my time there at the Attorney General’s Office, the head of the Violence Against Women unit actually gave me a head scarf as a present. And she said she was so thrilled to see that I was wearing head scarves throughout this planning process. It just made her more comfortable like we were on – I was willing to come to some common ground. It didn’t hurt me to do it. And she was – it basically opened the doors a little bit for us to talk.
So the streets of Kabul are fascinating because you can’t walk on them if you’re an international. There’s generally rules that you cannot and should not ever walk on the street. And in fact, with the organization I was with, you could be sent home if you walked on the streets because the risk is so great for kidnapping and death.
So you don’t walk anywhere. You drive everywhere or you’re driven I should say. You’re driven everywhere. And so, on the one hand, I really relished the times when I got out and got to go to meetings. And when you drive to the streets of Kabul, I would see daily life and see people shopping and doing what they do. On the other hand, it’s also very nerve-wracking because it’s a really the most dangerous times as a foreigner when you’re in the roads.
WOLF: I have a million more questions, but we’ve run out of time. I’ve been talking to Kristine Herman, a colleague of mine here at the Center for Court Innovation. She’s director of Global Gender Initiatives and the associate director of Domestic Violence Programs here at the Center for Court Innovation. And she was talking to me about her recent three months in Afghanistan where she was helping the Attorney General’s Office create a specialized violence against women unit.
HERMAN: Thanks for having me.
WOLF: I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To find out more about the center, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.