Interview: Human Rights Lawyer Ewelina U. Ochab on Fighting for Afghanistan’s Women Judges, Lawyers Features
Maryam // JURIST
Interview: Human Rights Lawyer Ewelina U. Ochab on Fighting for Afghanistan’s Women Judges, Lawyers

Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab is a lawyer, human rights advocate, and author, as well as a co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response. She has collaborated with international and domestic partners to provide legal assistance to women at risk in Afghanistan and has been involved in evacuating 103 women at risk from the country. In March 2023, Dr. Ochab joined the international campaign “End Gender Apartheid” to raise awareness about gender apartheid against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran. Additionally, she is the lead author of the Hazara Inquiry report, a joint effort of cross-party Parliamentarians from both Houses and experts working together to uncover atrocities and promote justice for the Hazara people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dr. Ochab’s work primarily focuses on the topic of genocide, particularly the persecution of minorities worldwide.

Maryam — a pseudonym for a women’s rights activist and JURIST contributor based in Afghanistan, who has requested to remain anonymous due to fears for her safety — interviewed Dr. Ochab to discuss her involvement in helping female judges flee Afghanistan and the legal assistance she provided to them.

How many female Afghan judges have been relocated to the UK through your efforts?

Through our collaborative initiative involving the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, led by Baroness Kennedy KC, Emily Foale, and myself, we successfully evacuated seven female Afghan judges to the UK. In total, we evacuated 103 at-risk women and their family members, amounting to approximately 500 individuals. The majority were resettled in Canada, with others in Australia, Ireland, Germany, and a few other countries.

What type of work are relocated Afghan women judges pursuing in the UK? Is it possible for them to have a legal career in the UK?

In the UK, these relocated judges are receiving support to help them find their footing in the local legal profession. Breaking Barriers, for example, is one organization offering crucial assistance. They help with language learning, CV writing, interview preparation, and training in various transferable skills.

Some of these judges have already joined law firms or are pursuing further law degrees. They’re also actively engaging with the UK Parliament and Government on behalf of women in the legal profession who were left behind. This involvement has included attending parliamentary briefings and meetings, even at the prestigious Number 10.

While they’re making progress in rebuilding their lives in the UK, it’s important to recognize that the journey is still a long one.

How many Afghan female judges still remain in Afghanistan or other countries and what are you doing to help them?

From what we know, there are still many female judges in Afghanistan, and many more female lawyers and other legal professionals. What we can do is very limited, especially now that our evacuations concluded. However, we continue to do what we can – including engaging the UK Parliament and Government on the issue. Baroness Kennedy KC raises the topic on every occasion and will continue to do so as the threat to women, and especially those in the legal profession, in Afghanistan, continues.

What do you think the international legal community can do to help Afghan female judges and lawyers who remain in Afghanistan?

The international legal community must work together to help Afghan female judges and lawyers who remain in Afghanistan. This includes mapping the available assistance, identifying gaps and exploring other options to help these women. Collaboration and cooperation are key.

The Taliban’s persecution of women and girls is relentless. What do you think is the prospect for girls and women in Afghanistan in the future?

As it stands, the prospects of Afghan women and girls having a future in Afghanistan are very slim. The Taliban is making sure of that – with every policy and every decision that removed women and girls from the public square and confines them to their homes. This is also why the international community must step up their efforts. States will engage will some form of communication with the Taliban. This should be used to raise the situation of Afghan women and girls and make it a condition for any further engagements.

What can the international legal community to resurrect a legal system in Afghanistan that meets international norms and requirements, as well as the rule of law?

The international legal community will not be able to do much as long as the Taliban is in power. However, some small but important steps can be taken – including supporting legal professionals who are abroad, supporting those who are left behind, and engaging States to include the reform of legal systems and the rule of law as a priority for any engagements with the Taliban.

What can women and feminist groups in other countries do to fight against gender apartheid?

They should join the campaign End Gender Apartheid Today. The campaign is led by amazing Afghan and Iranian women, who have been human rights defenders, lawyers, judges etc. It is crucial that more people support the campaign, but also engage politicians and governments around the world. It is crucial that the international community stands united in recognising this crime against women and girls and acts to address it with tailored and comprehensive responses.

How are you helping Afghan women come closer to freedom?

I try to cover the situation of Afghan women and girls whenever possible. The attention on Afghanistan is fading away. I try to cover the situation regularly to ensure that the topic does not disappear from the agenda and that people know that only because the stories are gone from the media headlines, it does not mean that the situation has improved. On the contrary, women and girls continue to suffer, in silence, forgotten by the international community, and neglected.

What is your key message to Afghan women who are facing adverse situations and who lost hope?

Do not give up. There are many people around the world who care about you and your fate.

How did your personal trajectory determine you to fight for equality and women’s empowerment?

I have been working on human rights for many years. However, it is always when I meet women and girls who are affected by the violations that get the extra motivation to fight for their rights.