Success Story: Advocacy for Children in Balkh Women’s Prison
Afghanistan’s justice system is notoriously discriminatory towards women. The majority of women in Afghan prisons are there for what are deemed “moral crimes” by the court system, which in practice often disregards Afghanistan’s civil laws in favor of Shariah law. In Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, the Balkh women’s prison houses dozens of women who are detained in squalid conditions with no means for legal recourse. Many are there for running away from home, in attempts to escape forced marriages or harsh physical abuse from their husbands, and many fear death in the form of “honor killings” when finally released from prison. Often these women have no choice but to bring their children to prison with them, and some children are born behind bars. Currently, the Balkh women’s prison houses 36 children living with their mothers in detention. The children in prison have no provisions for food, or access to health services, education, or recreation, and their mothers have to scrounge up what meager resources they can find to feed and clothe them. The developmental effects on children growing up in these conditions will be detrimental and long-lasting.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), in partnership with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Internews, is implementing the USAID-funded Strengthening Political Entities and Civil Society (SPECS) program in six provinces throughout Afghanistan, including Balkh. As part of the SPECS program, IFES supports civil society organizations (CSOs) in conducting effective advocacy on issues critical to citizens at a grassroots level. Consortiums of six CSOs in each province, coordinated by IFES provincial staff, conduct outreach at the community level to identify the top priority issues for residents in each region. In Balkh, children living in prison with their mothers was identified as one such issue. Once the advocacy issue was identified, IFES partner CSOs set about establishing relationships with a diverse range of stakeholders in Balkh province, including the Provincial Governor’s Office; the Directorate of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Persons with Disabilities; the Provincial Council; District Governors; the Municipality; peer organizations in Mazar-e-Sharif city; the Chamber of Commerce; charity foundations; and several private sector companies.
This was a compelling issue for many leaders in Mazar-e-Sharif, in a society where justice for women often seems out of reach, and the systemic causes of their imprisonment are so challenging to tackle. As a result of these advocacy efforts, several private companies responded by donating $2,500 (USD) to improve the living conditions for these children. With these donations, IFES partner CSOs organized the construction of a children’s center at the prison, including a play area, and provision of regular meals for the children. In addition, once construction was complete, one private company was inspired to commit additional funding to hire two teachers to provide basic education at the prison for an entire year. With these donations, the private sector committed unprecedented support to improve conditions in the prison and helped bring attention to the much larger issue of systemic injustice towards women. At the opening ceremony of the children’s center, the Deputy Provincial Governor of Balkh Province stated, “This center is a promising example of the fruitful cooperation of CSOs, the private sector, and the government. We must endeavor to continue this cooperation.”
With this success under their collective belt, Balkh partner CSOs traveled to Kabul in November to attend IFES’s Advocacy Conference and Training. They presented on their accomplishments to other IFES partners, shared lessons learned, and participated in a training delivered by IFES Europe & Asia Regional Director Vasu Mohan to think strategically and creatively about ways to take their advocacy campaigns to the next level. This cooperation between civil society, government entities, and the private sector to harness resources and political will to address an important community issue was an achievement for IFES partner CSOs in advocating for a more transparent and inclusive political process.