Nigina* had been in a childless marriage for several years when her husband, Fariad, decided to marry a second woman. When Nigina protested, Fariad began beating her. With his family’s assistance, he kept her locked in the house.
After over a month of this treatment, Nigina managed to escape and sought help at the Legal Aid Center in Rasht, Tajikistan. She was one of the thousands of people who have received free legal aid in Tajikistan in the recent years.
People like Mirzo*, who has a speech defect. At school, he was often bullied by the teachers and other students. The problem grew worse, as he couldn’t answer questions or recite in front of the class. Under Tajik law, a student with a speech disability should be allowed to answer questions in writing, but Mirzo was never given that opportunity.
His grades deteriorated and the school threatened to expel him. Mirzo became depressed, and his mother Gulnora approached the local Legal Aid Center for help.
Free legal aid centers have been operating across Tajikistan since 2013, under UNDP’s Rule of Law and Access to Justice Programme. There are currently 26 of legal aid centers, serving over a thousand clients per month. About 70% of all clients are women, often with family-related problems such as divorce, inheritance, and child support.
Legal Aid Centers are needed because access to justice in Tajikistan remains difficult, especially for poor people and people in rural areas. Tajikistan has few lawyers, and the court system is overburdened and slow. Many people rely on traditional mechanisms of justice, like local elders or mullahs; however, these are not always effective. In addition, many people, even in official positions, are ignorant of the laws. The Centers give ordinary people access to legal advice – and, if necessary, to an advocate who will work to see that their rights are protected.
Such was the case with Nigina. With the Rasht Center’s assistance, Nigina sought divorce. When her husband found out, he beat her so severely she had to be hospitalized. But after the Center contacted the police and the prosecutor’s office, Fariad was arrested. Nigina went through a court process, supported by the Center, and Fariad was sentenced to nine years in prison. His family was also sentenced as accomplices and ordered to pay damages to Nigina.
For Mirzo, the Center got involved to make his school experience more inclusive, informing the school of their legal obligations. While they told the school they might initiate a lawsuit, they also assisted them to get a small grant to support their work with a disabled student. As a result, the bullying stopped and teachers allowed Mirzo to answer in writing.
The Center put Mirzo’s mother Gulnora in contact with an NGO for disabled persons, which provided speech therapy and a training course in rapid writing for Mirzo. The Center also helped mediate tensions in the family arising from the situation. Mirzo is now getting good grades and will graduate with the rest of his class.
The Legal Aid Centers also provide assistance outside the legal framework. The staff took Nigina to a local Women’s Resource Center where she received counseling. They also helped her get a job, and nowadays Nigina is employed and no longer threatened by her ex-husband nor his family.
“Access to justice is a basic human right, as well as a means to address social exclusion and inequalities, and support economic growth,” says UNDP Country Director Jan Harfst. “It is a cornerstone for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And one way to improve access to justice is through direct provision of legal aid and assistance.”
17,971 citizens received free legal aid in the period from January to November 2016. This is a significant increase from the 11,206 people in 2015, and 8,505 in 2014. More legal aid centers have given better access to citizens, and as the centers improve their efficiency, they’ve been able to see more clients.
The Centers are staffed by Tajik lawyers who have been trained in providing legal assistance, particularly to poor people and vulnerable groups. At this time, most of the centers are donor-funded and operated by UNDP. However, the long-term goal is to have the Government of Tajikistan provide these services as part of the justice system. The Programme is helping Tajikistan move from donor supported free legal aid services to state-supported free legal aid. In this context, the Programme supported the establishment of a new government agency within the Ministry of Justice: the State Agency for Legal Aid Centers, which started operations in 2016. 8 of the 26 Legal Aid Centers are now run by the state, and a gradual takeover should be complete by 2019.
*Names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.