Safe Reentry for Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls in Afghanistan

By Samira Ishaqzai, Deputy Director, Afghanistan &

MaryBeth Bognar, Program Officer

COVID-19 has led to the release of thousands of people globally to reduce overcrowding in prisons and curb the spread of the virus, but walking out of prison is just the first step. Formerly incarcerated people face a challenging road reintegrating into their homes, jobs, families, and communities. This is especially true for women and girls in Afghanistan.

The vast majority of Afghan women and girls who enter the criminal justice system come into conflict with the law due to poverty, abuse, drugs, exploitation, discrimination, or all of the above. Significantly, about half of Afghan women and girls ages 15-49 have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime. Survivors of gender-based violence who come into contact with the criminal justice system find themselves prosecuted and imprisoned rather than supported, and experience further trauma in the prison system. In fact, over half of women in the Afghan criminal justice system have been accused of so-called “moral crimes," such as “running away” from home, and sex out of wedlock-- even in cases of rape or urgent attempts to escape domestic violence.

When leaving the criminal justice system, many women and girls have no safe place to go. They often lack access to financial resources, education, and work, which can leave them in situations of vulnerability when they are released. Women and girls who have been incarcerated also face intense stigma that can leave them isolated from their families and communities. Sometimes, even women’s shelters will turn them away. This means that women and girls may be forced to return to the same dangerous environments that led them into conflict with the law in the first place. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only compounded dangers for women and girls, spurring a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence and femicide.

In April 2020, hundreds of Afghan women and girls were granted release as part of a sweeping amnesty decree to reduce overcrowding in prisons amidst COVID-19. The ILF jumped into action advocating to get as many clients out of detention as possible. We quickly saw, however, that many women and girls had no safe place to go. They were in dire need of support to safely transition home.

In response to this growing need and in line with our commitment to holistic representation, we launched a gender-responsive reentry support program pilot in Afghanistan. With this program, not only are we providing high-quality, gender-informed legal representation, but we are supporting women and girls throughout the entire course of their case from arrest, to release, to reintegration.

Since May 2020, we have engaged international experts to train our entire Afghan legal team on gender and trauma-informed legal representation so we can effectively identify, document, and support the unique needs of women and girls. We are delivering reentry kits containing items like cell phones, masks, hand sanitizer, and personal care products to women and girls as they exit the criminal justice system. And we are strengthening our referral networks to make sure women and girls get the support services they need including prenatal and maternal care, mental health counseling, addiction support, access to safe spaces, and gender-based violence resources. So far, we have provided this holistic reentry support to more than 150 women and girls across 15 provinces-- but there are many more women and girls who need support.

We strive not only for positive case outcomes but, also for positive life outcomes for each and every person we represent. The launch of this new program is an exciting step to provide robust, holistic support services across Afghanistan, and to meaningfully understand and meet the needs of women and girls in the Afghan criminal justice system. In the future, we hope to expand this pilot program so that we can provide reentry support for all of our clients of every gender in Afghanistan and around the world.