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As violence against women in Afghanistan spikes to its highest levels since the fall of the Taliban government, the US has become an investor in the country's informal—tribal—justice system. In this 'Special Report,' GlobalPost tells the painful stories of women who have been subjected to the tribal courts' brand of 'justice': unfairly imprisoned, traded like property and often abused every step of the way. 

Afghan women and the Rule of Law conundrum

Part Three: American money supports an antiquated and abuse-ridden system.

Roshan Sirran, a women’s rights activist who heads the Training Human Rights Association for Afghan Women (THRA), sees the persistence of ba’ad as evidence that tribal courts are inherently inimical to women’s interests.

Sirran had just returned from a visit to her native Nangarhar, and acknowledged that ba’ad was still strong in many areas.

“The number of cases of ba’ad will not decline without a revitalized court system,” she said.

The US officials interviewed in Afghanistan seem quick to brush away such critiques.

A poster promoting women's rights awareness, designed by the Women For Change organization, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2011.
(Erin Trieb/VII)

“The practice of ba’ad has been overstated,” said a US official who works with the informal sector. “We have anecdotal evidence that it is decreasing all over the country.”

This “anecdotal evidence” is cited by many who believe in the US engagement with the tribal courts. But there is very little hard data to back up the claim.

“We do not know whether ba’ad is actually declining, or whether people are reporting it less, because they know the international community frowns upon it,” acknowledged the US official.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence to support this latter hypothesis – that ba’ad is being practiced, but concealed, to keep the aid dollars flowing.

One program administrator for an NGO admitted, on condition of anonymity, that cases of ba’ad were routinely deleted from project reports submitted to donors.

“We tell our project officers that USAID wants to hear about human rights, not abuses,” said the manager.

According to internal reports of this NGO, as recently as July 2011, in Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan, a tribal council heard the case of two men — Sayed Rahim and Mohammad Ayaz, who quarreled over a land deal gone sour. Two men were killed in the ensuing conflict, and the tribal elders intervened.

As compensation, Ayaz received the land and three girls in ba’ad. This, in the opinion of the elder describing the incident, was a satisfactory outcome to the problem.

The incident did not figure in the NGO’s report to USAID for the time period, according to documents made available to GlobalPost.

Nangarhar is not an exception. A local leader in Ghazni province had similar experiences.

“Ba’ad still exists in our area,” said Dur Mohammad Sardazai, who lives in Ghazni city, the provincial capital. Sadarzai is a malik, or local leader, and is often called upon to help resolve disputes. “It is a long-standing tradition. We are trying to change, we tell people it is against human rights, but it is difficult. It will take a long time to stop this practice.”

How long is a question that the United States government would prefer not to ask. USAID programs have very short timelines — one to three years in most cases.

“Once we have peace and security, then ba’ad will disappear,” said Roshan Sirran, the women’s rights activist from THRA. “But not until then.”

Judging by the past ten years, peace and security are a long way off. But the problem is cultural, and will take decades of education and development to eradicate.

“This will take generations,” said Noorjahan Akbar, co-founder of Young Women for Change, an organization that seeks to raise awareness of women’s problems among Afghan youth.

In the meantime, what can women expect?

Sirran is skeptical of fine words and fulsome promises advanced by both her won government and the international community.

Interviewed at a roundtable on human rights in Kabul, sponsored by USAID, she smiled gently when asked about the condition of women.

“Look at these man who speak so eloquently about women,” she said in a sidebar interview with GlobalPost, glancing around the room at a collection of deputy ministers, heads of NGOs, and other luminaries.

“They are very much in favor of women’s rights — for their neighbors’ wives and daughters. But go to their homes, and see how they treat their own women.”

TLO’s Peyton Cooke adds his own note of caution:

“We need to work with both systems,” he said. “And the ideas must come from the Afghans themselves. We cannot force them.”

But, Cooke pointed out, the United States must also avoid giving power and legitimacy to the most retrograde of local leaders, who could use their authority to prey on the local population.

This will be all the more crucial as the United States begins to withdraw its combat troops in the coming months, leaving security in the hands of the Afghans themselves. By 2014, when the transition is due to be completed, local leaders will be fully in control. This may create some rather murky dynamics if not adequately managed, adds Cooke.

“If this is not done correctly, if we empower the wrong people, then engagement with the informal sector could be pregnant with very real danger,” he said. “But some engagement is probably better than none.”

This is Part Three of a three-part GlobalPost Special Report titled "Life Sentence: Women and Justice in Afghanistan." Read Part One and Part Two.