FINALIST: Combating Gender Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System by Providing Holistic Defense & Support Services

Ask questions for the Combating Gender Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System by Providing Holistic Defense & Support Services project here!

Combating Gender Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System by Providing Holistic Defense & Support Services
The International Legal Foundation, Afghanistan

ABOUT: This project seeks to ensure that formerly incarcerated women and girls in Afghanistan—including hundreds released pursuant to COVID-19 amnesty decrees—are provided with a safe and successful transition to their communities. Women in Afghanistan faced unfair prosecution and incarceration and high levels of gender-based violence even before COVID-19, and have been further marginalized and threatened during the pandemic. This project will improve the life circumstances of women and girls released from prison by ensuring they have safe housing, and by assisting them with any corollary legal needs, including divorce or child custody, medical, psycho-social, or other critical needs.

Learn more about this project on the World Justice Challenge website.


Congrats on being a WJC finalist! I was wondering if you could elaborate on how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your work or worsened/changed the situation on the ground. How did ILF adapt to this new reality and what strategies did it have to implement given the public and economic health crises?

Hello, and thanks so much for this great question. The COVID-19 pandemic required us to respond very quickly to protect the health and safety of detainees and incarcerated people, so we stepped up advocacy for release – which helped secure a broad amnesty in Afghanistan – and also used strategic litigation to ensure that once amnesties happened, people were actually released. Seeing how COVID-19 made situations even more precarious for low-income and marginalized people – and with women facing even greater risk of domestic violence – inspired this project on reentry, as we realized our female clients urgently needed social services and other support after release. Our global response to the COVID-19 pandemic included sharing technical guidance for legal aid providers and filing petitions for mass release. In terms of adaptation, we shifted to a remote version of our International Fellows program, so field staff could still stay connected with international public defenders for training and support, including in starting the reentry program in Afghanistan. We also introduced health and safety protocols, with expanded work from home and social distancing in the office, although defense lawyers continued to go to court to fight for the rights of their clients even during the pandemic.


Hello! I am an Associate on the Criminal Justice Research team here at the World Justice Project.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing your presentation last week. The work you do is so important and it was inspiring to hear about the impact that you have been able to make.

I am wondering if you could answer two of my questions:

  1. Could you name another key project that the ILF pioneers? I am interested in understanding more completely what the ILF does on whole.
  2. Could you please explain why Afghanistan’s female prison population has increased “by over 44% in the last decade”? How does this relate to the work that you do and to the pivotal impact that this project has?

Thank you!

Dear Lindsey,

Thank you so much for your interest in the ILF’s work! To answer your questions:

  1. In terms of the ILF’s work on the whole, our mission is to make justice a reality for people by fighting to guarantee quality representation for everyone arrested or detained. Around the world, we provide criminal defense services and build sustainable, effective, legal aid institutions. In Afghanistan, for example, the ILF has 65 lawyers defending clients in 23 provinces, runs legal aid clinics in partnership with local universities, and staffs a legal advice hotline. We also provide technical advice to support Afghanistan’s Legal Aid High Commission and Secretariat, to ensure oversight of legal aid provision is effective, transparent, and locally accountable. The ILF has pioneered a number of initiatives with the goal to ensure prompt, meaningful, and equal access to justice to all. In Afghanistan, Nepal and Tunisia, we have pioneered police station duty officer programs to ensure early access to lawyers for people arrested or detained and to curb torture and arbitrary pretrial detention. We are also innovating litigation strategies in Afghanistan and around the world to combat racial, ethnic and gender injustice. In Afghanistan, a significant focus of our litigation is in challenging the discrimination and abuse facing women, including so-called virginity testing. In addition, we are working to introduce best practices and strategies for reducing incarceration, including through mediation and diversion. You can learn more about the full range of our work, including our advocacy and strategic litigation responding to COVID-19, here:

  2. As to why Afghanistan’s female prison population has increased over the past decade, this is a great question and would be a good area for further research. There is a growing body of research indicating that female rates of incarceration are increasing around the world for reasons related to increased law enforcement efforts, harsher penalties for drug and other offenses, and post-conviction barriers to reentry. We believe all of these are driving increased female arrest and incarceration rates in Afghanistan, as is increased insecurity and poverty. Recent estimates indicate that 70% of Afghanistan’s population now lives below the poverty line. What we’ve seen from preliminary research is that roughly half of the charges against our women and girl clients involve “moral” crimes like running away from home or sex outside marriage. Since many of these women and girls are GBV survivors and face social stigma and risk of attack upon release, this was a big reason for launching our reentry program. In light of the Bangkok Rules, reducing incarceration of women and girls and implementing non-custodial sentences is a key objective of this program. Another notable portion of our female clients have been charged for violence against women, which seems surprising. It seems to us that women are not necessarily being recognized as victims of gender-based violence in many cases, and instead are being prosecuted for acts of self-defense or self-preservation. We plan to further our research of women’s treatment in the criminal justice system in Afghanistan.


Dear raicher,

Thank you so much for your thorough response. I really enjoy learning about the large impact the ILF is making in a number of countries around the world, in addition to this project.

I also appreciate your explanation of the various factors that are potentially contributing to the rise of the female prison population in Afghanistan. This answers a lot of my questions and I hope to see further research conducted on this issue.

Good luck with the competition!


Thanks, Lindsey. We’re grateful for your interest!


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Hello - congratulations on being a finalist. Your project is inspiring. What do you hope the next step of the project may be? Do you hope to expand to other areas? Thank you for your time

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Hi, Kurt. Thanks so much for your message, and we’re so honored that you found the project inspiring. In terms of expanding to other areas, yes, we definitely believe this model is relevant globally and could be localized for women and girls in other country contexts. We are very keen to make gender-sensitive and trauma informed reentry planning a permanent aspect of our offering for women and girls across Afghanistan and in all the countries where we work, and to continuously strengthen our referral networks through partnerships with other social service providers. The ILF is already working with incarcerated women in Tunisia, for example, so we hope to develop more robust reentry support for women and girls there.

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Thank you for your answer! What a wealth of knowledge and experience from having roots in several countries. I agree that partnerships with social service providers are such a key, long-term part to build - in Honduras, we are growing in that area with the hope of connecting with other nonprofits that work with children to prevent child sexual abuse. I hope many women and girls will continue to benefit from your work. All the best!

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Thank you, Kurt. Amazing to hear about your work in Honduras as well. It sounds hugely important, but I imagine it must also be extraordinarily challenging. What’s the name of your organization? The ILF is actually hoping to expand into Latin America in the coming years, and recently did a preliminary assessment of the legal aid system in Honduras. As we also have a juvenile justice practice providing holistic representation for kids – and keeping in mind that issues like abuse might be underlying reasons for contact with the law – it would be great to keep in touch.