When women survivors of violence in Afghanistan seek justice for the crimes perpetrated against them, they must be able to trust the authorities to protect their identity and treat their case with discretion.
However, without formal training or policies, confidentiality can be breached inadvertently. Justice actors are often simply unaware of the implications for female survivors of violence and how a lapse in privacy protection might impact their ability to hold the perpetrator to justice.
As part of its efforts to support access to justice in Afghanistan, IDLO has therefore begun implementing training workshops on confidentiality surrounding cases of violence against women. Working closely with partners such as the IDLO-supported Women Protection Centers (WPCs), which offer shelter services and foster awareness of women’s rights in Afghanistan, organizational policies on confidentiality have also been developed.
So far, almost 300 people have been trained from across the country, including government officials, legal professionals, counsellors, administrative assistants and WPC support staff, and journalists from local, national and international media outlets.
The workshops have covered a range of topics such as relevant international and national legal frameworks on gender-based violence, ethical considerations, techniques for protecting identities and key concepts of media relations. The sessions have also allowed participants to talk about their experiences and learn from one another.
Government and shelters
Legal professionals in Afghanistan are generally familiar with the importance of protecting confidentiality in cases of violence against women. However, administrative employees who are exposed to sensitive information may have less awareness of the implications of their actions.
Government officials would hold interviews with female survivors in open plan offices, where other employees and visitors could overhear the details of her case. WPC employees would discuss cases with other colleagues or share confidential information in conversation with family and friends.
Even survivors themselves – often underage, illiterate or simply intimidated – might not fully understand the consequences of speaking about what happened to them with others. Particularly concerning were occasions in which they would receive mixed messages about what they could or couldn’t say before a court hearing.
As a result, steps were taken to increase overall education and awareness, and to formalize policies. Policies geared towards different organizations have now been drafted in a participatory process, with a view to ensuring survivors are briefed about their rights, have their lawyer present and give their consent before information is shared about their case.
The focus on professional standards was particularly welcomed by the WPCs, as they have frequently been represented in a dubious light by Afghan media.
“Confidentiality is the backbone of sensitive work such as running the Women Protection Centers,” commented Dr. Hafizuddin Faqiree from the Organization for Research and Community Development (ORCD), which is setting up a WPC in Laghman province. “There are many negative myths circulating in the community. If we don’t protect confidentiality, this will increase those myths and create a lot of problems.”
While the Afghan Law on Elimination of Violence against Women has a clear clause relating to the confidentiality of survivors, it also contains a provision to raise awareness of the problem of violence against women. Yet media representations frequently breach confidentiality by exposing the identities of survivors, insufficiently disguising images, or including details of ongoing cases.
As a consequence, WPC employees – wary of the value of media coverage – tended to avoid working with the media. The media in turn were frustrated with the cumbersome processes required to secure permission to cover stories.
In addition, the media’s portrayal of violence against women in Afghanistan has often been a negative one, seeking to expose the worst stories and failing to represent the positive stories of women managing to turn their lives around or the important role of support services.
“As a senior reporter, I believed that the negative stories stand out and, therefore, journalists should go for the worst. This is what I did,” said journalist Ahmad Hanaish from Radio Free Europe, one of the participants of a training on confidentiality in relation to the media. “Thanks to this workshop, I understand that I have not only a professional but also a moral obligation to show the good side, especially with respect to violence against women cases.”
Many journalists admitted that they had not fully appreciated the idea that awareness is not always a means to prevention, and had been unaware of the repercussions of past coverage.
“I have covered stories on violence against women. But I have never been asked to follow any specific policy regarding the confidentiality of victims of violence, except for blurring the face of the interviewee in videos and pictures,” said journalist Kanishka Malikzada from Khurshid TV. “It is the first time that we have been educated on the provisions of laws and regulations that obligate us journalists to observe the confidentiality of the victims while covering their stories. It is something that can bring about positive change.”
Looking to the future, a media policy is being developed by IDLO in collaboration with representatives from the government, the media and the WPCs, and a joint committee has been proposed to increase cooperation on preventing violence against women in Afghanistan.