Access to Legal Aid Changes the Role of Tajik Women in Society

FROM: Kruthikaa Lakshmanan – 25. November 2020

The United Nations General Assembly designated 25th November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women after the Mirabal sisters. The sisters from the Dominican Republic refused to give up on their fight to restore democracy and to save their nation from the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo. On this date 1960, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa were assassinated by the regime.

This day we observe the efforts made in the direction of eliminating violence and injustice against women in Tajikistan. Surrounded by mountains, it is home to over 9 million people and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Though poverty is rapidly declining, the rate is much slower in rural Tajikistan which constitutes 73% of the population. The poverty in these areas affects the women disproportionately.

Women face inequality not only in the economic but also in social and political life. In search of work, roughly 500,000 men migrate to other countries. The women left behind and sometimes abandoned become de-facto heads of the house. Cultural biases lead parents to enable sons and not daughters for financial self-sufficiency. Negative social norms that limit the choice of women are endured in silence. Overlapping issues of education, employment, inheritance, land rights etc. leave women with a decided disadvantage.

A prominent story of Z.A who was married in 2013 and soon was the mother of a child. After the wedding, the husband of Z.A. spent two years in labor migration. Returning from migration, her husband started taking a psychotherapeutic drug, the name of which Z.A. does not know. Z.A. noted that the behavior of her husband changed and he became aggressive. He started beating her for no reason and also sexually assaulting her.  This situation continued for six months.   

It was around the same time that Tajikistan adopted the Law on Prevention of Violence in the family. This law has brought about some positive changes, as it enables women to seek legal aid when faced with unfair situations in daily life. Citizens of the country can now approach the state for issues relating to registrations of marriages and divorce, obtaining child birth certificates, alimony, inheritance rights, domestic violence.  But access to lawyers is expensive, it is hard to keep track of documents when one is illiterate and it is a matter of shame to bring family matters to the state. 

Access to Justice, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), began with providing free legal aid through non-governmental and state-run Legal Aid Centers.

This program has evolved in two phases. Phase I set up a hotline to provide free legal consultations by phone. The duration of this ran its course from December 2012 to November 2016. In this period, a curriculum module was developed for 10th grade pupils on family law in Tajik schools. Free Legal Aid Centers across the country were set up to help people and especially women.

In 2016, the hotline was successfully transferred to the ownership of the Ministry of Justice. It was reported that 84% of people were happy with the services provided via the hotline and a whopping 16,000 people were assisted in free legal aid. Over 68% of them were women and 80% were poor.

Phase II was implemented from December 2016, in alliance with the United Nations Development Program and is aimed at continuing support in free legal aid. It is also involved in raising awareness about the program via campaigns on TV and radio, in print and social media. Over 80% of the population referred to TV as the main source of information regarding the program. 

Phase II is different from Phase I in ways that interact directly with the people in not only raising awareness regarding the program but also in trying to change the mind-set of gender inequality. This is done through community outreach activities, the development of Information and Communication Technologies, collaboration with the registry offices and local authorities in the most remote areas of the country. Empowering women to be able to defend themselves and be independent in their own terms is essential for the upliftment of society on the whole. The system of free legal aid is divided into

  1. Written and verbal consultations
  2. Help with the preparation of legal documents
  3. Services on the pre-trial settlement of conflicts (mediation) in civil disputes and 
  4. Representation in court

After being severely injured from a sexual assault, Z.A.  had enough. She decided to get legal aid from a state lawyer in the Free Legal Aid Center in Isfara. The lawyer helped to develop a petition to the prosecutor's office regarding the prevention of domestic violence. The petition was examined by the prosecutor's office together with the Department of Internal Affairs, and appropriate measures were taken to Z.A.’s husband.

Though the story of Z.A. is just one example, there are multiple women who benefited from this program. The program works two-fold, to provide legal aid and to contribute to a change of mind-set on the role of women in society. Women now can access legal aid themselves as well as be involved in policy dialogue sessions and speak up about issues ailing them.

We have come a long way since the tragedy of the Mirabal sisters in most countries, and we have yet a long way to go.

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