Judge speaks at conference on Afghanistan

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(Host) In the past several years a number of local non-profit groups have worked to help build a civil society in Afghanistan. Those groups are holding a conference this weekend at Dartmouth College to talk about their work.

VPR’s Steve Zind talked with one Vermonter who has helped women judges from Afghanistan.

(Zind) When the Taliban came to power in 1996 they broadcast announcements on the radio ordering all Afghan working women to leave their jobs and go home. They went a step further to make sure one group of the country’s most influential and educated women obeyed their command.

(Whalen) The judges, they actually came for them. Came into the courts and literally, in some cases, picked them up chair and all and brought them back to their homes.

(Zind) Patricia Whalen is a Family Court Magistrate in Vermont and founder of the Afghan Women Judges Education Project. For the past three years the organization has been quietly hosting Vermont visits by women who have become judges in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Whalen says biggest problems the women face in their jobs have nothing to do with their sex. Corruption tops the list, followed by a lack of basic tools needed to perform their jobs.

(Whalen) They have no books; they don’t even know how to find the law. The civil law codes that were in place in the 60s are still in theory in place but they don’t have access to them so they don’t even know what the written law is anymore.

(Zind) Whalen’s group has raised money to print law books for the judges and in two weeks she’ll travel to Afghanistan to distribute them. Whalen says the state’s open and relatively small court system gives the visiting Afghan judges a chance to see how the justice system works by sitting in on proceedings and talking with their Vermont counterparts.

Whalen says there are still only a small number of female judges in the nation’s court system. She is part of another group called the Rural Women Leadership Institute of Vermont which is talks to the Afghan women about how they can support each other and play an increasingly important role in their country.

That role doesn’t come without a price. Cultural traditions still discourage women from assuming a greater public role and women who do are frequently criticized or threatened. Whalen says just as the Afghan women have learned from her, she’s benefited from the time she’s spent with them.

(Whalen) I think it’s amazing to be in the company of women that are as brave as they are and still have the ability to laugh and to love.

(Zind) Whalen says here experiences have also served to remind her that our legal system, even with its flaws, is a remarkable institution.

Whalen will be speaking this weekend during a conference at Dartmouth College that will explore the connections between New England and Afghanistan.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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