Mahfuza Folad

2011 JusticeMakers Fellow, Afghanistan

2011 IBJ JusticeMakers Fellow Mahfuza Folad has shown remarkable determination to pursue a legal career in dangerous, often life-threatening circumstances.  She recalls: “I lost nine years of my education because of fighting – first the civil war, then the Taliban.” The Taliban came into power a month into her first semester at Kabul University’s Law Faculty. “Girls were not allowed to return to school… Most women did not even venture outside.” Desperate to continue her education, Mahfuza learned how to use a computer in secret, and then began giving secret computer lessons for other women, constantly under threat of being discovered and arrested by the Taliban. “I was scared for my life, but I believed in educating women, so I took the risk.”

After the Taliban regime was toppled, she finally completed her B.A. in Law and Political Science  completing a course to become a judge in Kabul’s Primary Court. Mahfuza was courageous enough to work as a defense lawyer, often representing those accused of murder, theft, abduction, narcotics trafficking, and forgery – a controversial role in a society where women are routinely attacked and threatened for taking public positions.

In 2008, building upon the lessons she learned from working as a judge and defense lawyer, Mahfuza founded Justice for All Organization (JFAO) or Adolat Barrae Hama in Dari, to strengthen the rule of law in Afghanistan and fill the much needed gap in access to justice for the poor.

She has been Executive Director of the JFA since 2008, tirelessly working to assist imprisoned women with their cases. She has an in-depth understanding of the issues facing Afghan women within a criminal justice context.

Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 nations on the U.N. Human Development Index. For an Afghan national, obtaining legal representation for him/herself or for a family member accused of a crime – frequently without cause or proof – is a luxury, an idea they do not understand, a privilege far beyond their reach. After a complete collapse of the legal system during the rule of the Taliban, it is slowly recovering but there is a strong need to rebuild the legal infrastructure – including training judges and defence lawyers, expanding legal aid, and focusing on the application of the rule of law.

The deteriorated state of the Afghan legal system has left many individuals – including many women and children – without access to legal counsel and support even though the Afghan constitution guarantees the criminally accused legal representation. Women are often imprisoned wrongly on false charges, many of them stemming from customary laws which tend to oppress women and criminalize behaviour that is not illegal under either Afghan penal law or Sharia law. In addition to lack of representation for the accused, many female prisoners also lack any knowledge about their rights and responsibilities under the criminal justice system. Furthermore, female prisoners are often stigmatized culturally and lack the resources to speak up for their rights or approach the justice system or legal professionals for assistance. Lacking education and resources, these women are often systematically denied their rights and suffer in prison as a result.

The Project: In order to address this situation, Mahfuza used her 2011 JusticeMakers Grant to implement an innovative project aimed at increasing access to justice for indigent accused women in Kabul by providing accused women with direct legal representation, running rights awareness training sessions inside a women’s prison, and publishing rights awareness materials for wider dissemination.

Results: Appointing 2 defence lawyers from the Justice for All Organization (JFA) to assist in the implementation of the project, Mahfuza provided legal representation to 16 indigent accused women, in cases including allegations of “adultery, running away, stealing, drinking alcohol and drug smuggling.” Not only did the team surpass her original aim of providing representation to 14 indigent accused women, but all 16 of the women were either released or had their penalty reduced.

One of the women whom Mahfuza team represented was Fatima, an 18-year-old living in Kabul who came from a nomadic tribe. “She said it was night, and she wanted to go to the bathroom, which was located outside their house…” A person suddenly appeared, and covered her mouth with a handkerchief sprayed with anaesthesia. “She passed out, and then they took her to an abandoned house and raped her. Then, her attacker took a taxi to escape but on the way the police captured both of them…” They were both arrested on grounds of adultery and detained in prison. During the initial investigation of the case, the JFA lawyer asked the prosecutor to send Fatima for forensic examination to determine whether or not she had been raped. The results showed that Fatima had in fact not been raped, but had thought that she had while she was unconscious. These results proved that she was not guilty of adultery. The case was sent to first stage juvenile court, and thanks to the efforts of Fatima’s lawyer she was released.

By running a rights awareness training programme in a female prison in Kabul, Mahfuza also aimed to educate both the detainees and staff on the legal rights of the accused. However due to the “daily” deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan, prison officials were placing increasingly narrow restrictions on the work of legal aid organisations, and the team were unable to obtain permission to run the training sessions inside the prison. Nonetheless, Mahfuza approached these challenges with perseverance and pragmatism, and obtained permission for the sessions to be held in a female detention house instead.

Her team ran 4 Rights Awareness training sessions in the detention house, with each session including 2 days of training for accused women, and 1 day of training for staff. Through her determination and commitment, Mahfuza managed to reach 56 accused women and 26 prison officials with crucial information about the fundamental rights of the accused, such as the rights to legal counsel and a fair trial. She is confident that this rights training made an important contribution to local efforts to educate and empower women in detention: “There are lots of organizations that work for female prisoners… but the prisoners said that this is the first time that they learned about their rights and responsibilities inside the jails. They added that other organizations trained them about violence, about women’s rights, women’s rights according to family code… but not about their rights inside the jail.”

The third component of the project was the creation and publication of 1,000 copies of a pictorial rights awareness booklet. These copies were distributed throughout 7 jails in Kabul, Herat, Nengarhar, Kapisa, Balkh, Kundoz and Takhar, in order to increase rights awareness among detainees on a broader scale. The success of the booklet in empowering detainees to seek fulfilment of their due process rights was confirmed when, following its distribution, the team began receiving calls from the accused in Kundoz and Takhar asking questions about their rights. In many of these cases, the team were able to provide advice over the phone. Moreover, demand for the booklet was so great that they eventually published and distributed another 1,000 copies.

Mahfuza would like to replicate the project on a larger scale, and reach a larger proportion of the indigent women languishing in detention in Afghanistan. However the JFAO is not at a stage where this is possible without the financial support of donors.