First female court judge, Judge Afrah Ba-Douelan, to the Yemen Times:”My philosophy is “Reform from within” you can’t point fingers if you yourself are in the wrong” [Archives:2004/755/Community]

July 15 2004

She is one of the few female Yemeni judges. She started from al-Mukala and is now the first female judge of a juvenile court in Yemen. Mrs. Afrah Saleh Mohammed Ba Douelan has set an example of how effective dedicated authorities can be. During her work in the judiciary system in Yemen she has proved her strong character and struggled to make the juvenile court in Aden a violence-free authority. Nadia al-Saqqaf from the Yemen Times met with Judge Afrah and conducted the following interview

Q: Could you tell us first about yourself?
A: I was born in 1962 in al-Mukala, and graduated from College of Law in University of Aden in 1984. I am a founding member of the Juvenile Care Association in Aden and a founding member of the Association for Supporting Women's Affairs in Aden.
I am also a member of the advisory body of the Arab Association for Supporting Women and Children Issues.
I am the first female judge who is head of court, and I am in charge of the juvenile court in Aden. I also write on legal issues, especially concerning women and children, and I have benefited from many courses and training on eliminating violence against women and children.
I read and write poetry and I have participated in many TV and radio programs such as “You and the Law” program on the Aden channel, and have participated in many public awareness activities.

Q: And about your career history?
A: I believe that to achieve something you must prove that you deserve it. This falls on me as a double weight, first for being a woman and second for being an Arab woman. It took me 19 years since becoming a judge to reach my position today as court judge. I can say that it has been a journey of struggle but seriously I believe that we in Yemen are better off than many other countries in terms of humanitarian dialogue and freedoms, especially related to women's rights, for Yemeni women have participated in the parliament and in the various ministries for a long time. These rights have not come to us today as a gift: they are our deserved rights that we earned.
When I graduated I was appointed to a position in charge of personal status cases in al-Mukala in Hadramout. There, 70% of the court's cases were in my domain and 30% were civil cases and were dealt with by four male colleagues. As such, this was not a bad thing, especially that it meant gaining a huge amount of experience that resulted in early maturity for me, career-wise. And in all my time at that court, not a single ruling from me was overruled by the Court of Appeal.
After that I worked as an advisor for the Ministry of Justice and Endowment in Aden a few years before unification in 1990, after which I returned to the civil court and in 1997 I was appointed head of the first juvenile court in Yemen. The nature of my work in this court included social and educational activities as well as research activities, a fact that added new dimensions to my practical experience. I represented Yemen in many international conferences and events in which I produced working papers and research. I used also to talk about juvenile issues through al-Qadhaiya magazine, which is issued by the Ministry of Justice. I was soon appointed as head of the juvenile court in Yemen.

Q: What would you say is your best achievement since assuming charge of the court in 1997?
A: My initiative against violence against juveniles in police stations in Aden could be taken as one of the best in the history of the judiciary system in Yemen. We at court fought against violence practiced by authorities and the police. This initiative received the support of the minister of justice, the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood and also international organizations working in this field. Fortunately, by the grace of God, we were successful in eliminating violence against children in all the police offices and authorities affiliated to the juvenile court. I have learned lately that Rada Barnen / Save the Children – Sweden are going to publish this experience as one of the most successful in this field and distribute copies to the relevant parties. I have also received support from UNICEF for my 2004 program. I would like to say one thing in this regard; it's not important what tools and resources you have in hand as much as how you use them, you have to have a great will to achieve.
The essence of this initiative is through a strategy that creates public awareness in dealing with minors in conflict with the law and that aims to eliminate violence practiced by the law-enforcement authorities themselves. This in itself is one of the most dangerous forms of violence because firstly, it is practiced by the authorities themselves, and secondly, it is practiced against the most vulnerable people, children in conflict with the law.
I have targeted mainly police officers in the front line that deals directly with children in conflict with the law and especially those officers and authorities that happen to lack the required legal awareness. This lack of awareness leads to violations of the rights of children and through a simplified study we discovered that the violence which under-aged are subjected to ranges from forced confessions and threats of sexual abuse, to being kept in custody for long periods without justification. This duration is meant for the protection of the society from the minor in cases of violence against the community such as the minor indulging in rape or aggressive acts and also in order to protect the minor against revenge.
Methods of extracting confessions from the minors vary from one policeman to another, but they generally are as impatient and unkind. This is because there is no specialized police to deal with the under-aged and the policeman for the sake of time prefers to use violence in order to force the accused to confess, abusing the child's vulnerability, ignorance and weakness. Although there are other methods for proving a crime, through evidence and witnesses, it seems that most policemen view the best and shortest way to prove the accusation as a confession from the accused, regardless of the social and psychological consequences for the minor.
Studies show that such violent behavior against children in conflict with the law leads to lesser success in rehabilitating those minors and in many cases they fall into what is called a nerve shock. This is in addition to the fact that such practices are a breach of all the international conventions on human rights that Yemen has signed and so leads to the classification of our country as a human rights-violating country.
All these factors together have urged me to do something in this regard and to do all that I can to stop these practices, so I came up with this initiative in which I used educational training for the authorities, starting from conducting workshops and training sessions for the officers and ending by the sudden inspection of the offices and custody areas and enforcing the return of the accused to the custody of his parents. In some cases, I have referred some policemen to the attorney general for investigation and trial for violating juvenile's rights. We also moved to a very critical point where we involved the minors themselves in the process and we comforted them and assured them that they could safely describe what treatment they were subjected to in the presence of the policemen themselves and this was a great success when we had a legal confrontation in front of high level authorities. This workshop was conducted end of last year 2003 in cooperation with the Save the Children – Sweden organization and it was very touching to see the children pointing their fingers at the policemen who did them wrong.
This is only a very simplified picture of what we are doing. I not only work from my office I work from home, and I frequently call the police offices at night to find out if they have any minors in custody, and I regularly meet with the authorities to plan for coming steps. The project lasted from mid 2002 and until the end of 2003.
I am proud today to say that since the starting of 2004 there has not been a single act of violence against a minor by police authorities reported. This in all senses means that we have succeeded in our project and in fact this has led to stronger ties between the court and the police officers. This also has been proved to me again through a consultation meeting supported by UNICEF for us and the police authorities and in which we found great understanding and cooperation.

Q: “Reform from within” – What does this line mean to you? And what are your new projects?
A: My philosophy is “Reform from within”. You can't point fingers if you yourself are in the wrong. Before reforming your house you have to fix yourself and create good relationships with your family living in the same house. To have a safer and better world we have to make our country safer and better. I am a woman who adores distinction and am very protective of my country. I want to be able to produce my best and when I took charge of the juvenile court in Aden I decided not to run it in a traditional way and to launch constructive initiatives. No longer did we participate in workshops as listeners or viewers, we were a active and participatory in all the sessions relating to our work. Following the success of our project at the end of 2003 we launched a new one that aims at creating a 'violence against children-free city' in Aden in 2004. We aim to do so through awareness activities, campaigns targeting all layers of the society and with the support of leadership figures and prominent characters in the community such as mosque preachers, sheikhs and heads of neighborhoods, social teachers in schools, intellectuals and media people in addition of course to the police force who supported us in our previous project in 2003. We are conducting lectures and scientific seminars in which people specialized in psychology, education and legal issues participated. The general aim of this project is to spread legal awareness about juvenile rights and national as well as international laws in this regards.
In a way you can say that this is a response to the call from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who first called for Reform from Within and urged all Yemenis to work on making our country a better country.

Q: As a women, do you face difficulties in your work?
A: I face the challenges in my work because if I surrender to the obstacles I will feel frustrated and I may give up and kill the creative spirit in me, but I am a woman with a strong will. The problems I face are those that face a man, for instance, one who wishes to build a home without having any money or any resources. It is the problem of resources that I am facing the most in our country, where the budgets are minimal and ambitions are so high. I don't have budgets for activities so I can't for example call for a meeting or conduct a workshop or a seminar or invite a legal expert to benefit from his or her expertise. I have to search for funding and sometimes I contribute from my own pocket to support translation or transport. If I had more funding I would have done much more.

Q: How do you see the future of Yemen?
A: In a way, Yemen's future is a part of the whole world's future since naturally Yemen is a part of the world. However, the future of this country specifically can be viewed through the vision of its leader President Ali Abdullah Saleh, leader of the modernization movement, and who is convinced of the necessity of reform and change: change that combines between internal and external obligations. I feel that he sees where the problems are and that is why he launched the initiative of “reform from within”. This is essential to us especially from our position in the judiciary system, which is the heart of the whole system. Reforming the judiciary system will lead to overall reform because justice is the foundation of governance. We at the Ministry of Justice accordingly have launched an initiative to eliminate the outstanding cases that have piled throughout the years and we participate strongly in efforts to curb revenge killings, which are unfortunately widespread in our country. I strongly hope that the Ministry of Justice will approve my initiative to eliminating violence against children and generalize this experience in all of the republic. This is a long process that requires a lot of planning and cooperating between efforts of the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, the Ministry of Human Rights and with all national and international NGOs.
I believe that it is from the justice system that all reform can take place and I call on all to participate in our initiative and to recognize our efforts and build on them to build national reform and a better and safer country for all.