feature friday

40 articles in category feature friday / Subscribe

Hello friends! This Friday, I’d like to introduce you to Zariya, an inspiring new organization working to support survivors of violence against women – currently in India – through an innovative, tech savvy new model. Check out what inspired Zariya’s Founder, Sahar Khan, in her journey towards tackling gender-based violence and founding a new model in this space!

  1. Tell me about yourself; how did you develop a passion for addressing gender-based violence?

Interestingly, in high school in Oman, I worked on women’s education because access to education is a cause that was and remains very dear to me personally. However, during my undergrad years at Stanford, my focus shifted slightly as I learnt more about the pressing problem of violence against women (VAW). I was exposed to grassroots women’s rights work to tackle VAW in India in the summer of 2012. In addition, I am struck by the visceral nature of violence which reminds us that, despite how educated and empowered a woman becomes, she can still be subject to the most debilitating form of abuse. In international law and rule of law studies, we often talk about an “enabling environment” that is required to ensure economic progress. It sounds abstract and you can’t easily measure the benefits of an enabling environment. And, when it’s there, you barely notice it. You only really feel its absence. I believe that a world free from violence is a woman’s enabling environment. And, we can’t just sit around waiting for international and national governments to hand us an enabling framework on a platter – we need to work with them to build the right institutions. This is why I work to end violence against women.

  1. What does Zariya do to address gender-based violence, and what is Zariya’s theory of change?

Zariya is an online platform which connects survivors of VAW with legal and counseling experts. Within 2 days, a woman can access the Zariya website on her smartphone, computer or other handheld device, provide just her email and pincode and thereafter access the resources she needs in her journey of rehabilitation. We use “hyperlocal” matching whereby a woman’s pincode is used to match her with a high-quality expert in her vicinity. We do this for a woman’s convenience, regional/linguistic specificity and to minimize costs relating to transportation. The experts that we connect women with are paid professionals at reputable organizations that Zariya has vetted such as MyChoices and Shaheen in Hyderabad, Swayam in Kolkata, Sneha in Mumbai etc.

And, we have a “third-party” theory of change. Zariya acts as a third-party advocate for a woman that drives all parties involved in a woman’s case to reach closure. Our role is to be a compassionate yet neutral assessor of a woman’s needs and match her with the right resources. We intentionally oversee and coordinate the various moving pieces of a case because this can be a serious hassle for survivors who do not have the kind of network to pull all the right levers. We are process agents rather than direct providers of the legal advice or counselling service. But, we make sure that the experts are doing a good job. This will be consolidated further in the future when we develop a ranking system for service providers in the anti-VAW ecosystem. An average case at most of our service providers’ organizations does not exceed 130 days. If that happens, we request an explanation and plan to immediately shift gears as necessary to bring a case closer to a satisfactory outcome.

Zariya’s long-term vision is to build an integrated referral network and a robust case management system customized for specific nations’ jurisdictions. After perfecting the entry-point which we are currently beta-testing, Zariya aims to build a case management system that empowers a survivor by providing her an enabling environment to drive her case from start-to-finish. We aim to infuse a small amount of coordination and accountability into the anti-VAW ecosystem. Ultimately, we endeavor to build a robust technology that governments can deploy.

  1. How does your model work?

Picture2We have a three-step process: triage (understand a woman’s needs), service delivery (match her with experts who can address her needs) and closure (an outcome that places the survivor in a more just, safe and happy material and mental state).

Zariya is currently a non-profit organization. The product and service will always be delivered to survivors at no charge. As we grow and scale our operations, we hope to initially be supported by grants and donations from foundations, corporations and individuals.

  1. What are the biggest successes you’ve experienced so far with Zariya? What challenges are you facing?

This is just the beginning of our journey, but we are getting a lot of traffic and more cases than we and our NGO partners ever expected. Every single time a woman initiates a case with Zariya and shows that she won’t endure abuse silently, we pat ourselves on the back because taking the first step of seeking help is the hardest. Our users have already commended us for quick turn-around and genuine care and concern for their problems. You can also check out Zariya’s website for user testimonials.

We have many challenges ahead that we need to overcome to make Zariya available to women in the future. The two classic challenges that most socially forward startup organizations initially face are financing and volunteer retention. We have only recently addressed our short-term financial needs through raising small amounts from multiple sources. In the long-term, we need to re-structure financially and organizationally so that we can focus on the actual substance of our work.  In the short term, we’ve had the steepest learning curve. Our volunteers have consisted of engineering and psychology students at IIT and other colleges, journalists, and designers who come on board to assist in case management, coordination and user design research & development. We are slowly starting to understand how to identify the right people and the best methods to motivate the right people.

  1. What are the biggest gaps and challenges with respect to service delivery and the support that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault require to move forward?

At Zariya, we call these challenges “supply-side” challenges (as opposed to demand-side challenges which comprise problems relating to under-reporting). We have noticed that, while there is a proliferation of organizations in the space, the supply-chain is not highly integrated and all organizations do not provide the same quality of help at a given standard. A highly comprehensive  report by Dasra has suggested that there needs to be some sort of a coordination mechanism between various types of help (legal, economic, medical, financial) so that a woman can resolve all separate yet inter-connected problems in a systematic and holistic manner. The case process is usually messy and non-linear, and is not something that a single service provider can be expected to manage in addition to providing her service.

In the anti-VAW ecosystem, there isn’t really a third party that vets service providers and provides a coordination mechanism. This is the role that Zariya plays for a woman. The better we get at understanding their problems, the more adept we get at making the smartest connections for her and overseeing the constantly moving pieces of her puzzle. In the duration of a case, we sometimes end up connecting a woman with 4-5 services until she finds a service provider who shows compassion for her and provides useful & actionable guidance. The compassion part is key as we have noticed that that’s what makes a survivor stick with a service provider. We are also currently in the process of developing a “compassion quotient” indicator for the anti-VAW ecosystem.

On the demand-side, there is lack of knowledge about existing services. So many women come to us and say that they filed a report with the police and then there wasn’t much follow-up or recourse. We need women to understand that, besides filing a report with the police (which is recommended), there are so many other options. For instance, women may not know about alternative dispute resolution and other mediation measures that can be delivered to them in a cost-effective manner. We hope to educate them about these services.

  1. What is the role of government in providing holistic services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault? Is the government currently fulfilling its duties? If not, how can we change this status quo?

Globally, most governments and legal systems are over-burdened and resource-constrained. And, even when governments take steps in the right direction with ambitious plans and infusion of funds, plans take time to implement and funds take time to be disbursed. Sometimes, if these plans are not viable, they fall apart. In my view, private citizens can play a crucial role in pushing their governments to expedite anti-VAW policies and programs. This can take on the form of activism or advocacy. We can also very substantially challenge the status quo by collaboratively creating innovative and novel solutions to learn about survivor needs. Half of the work that we do at Zariya is understanding and triaging a survivor’s need; the other half is catering to her needs.

In doing so, non-profits and private organizations can build a repository of knowledge and case precedent that can be presented to governments as a proof-of-concept that works. Governments may be able to provide personnel or funding for such projects and the project organizations can retain their intellectual capital. Essentially, deals need to be brokered and structures set up between public and private entities to make projects such as Zariya national, scalable and financially self-sustaining. India has a Delhi Wi-fi Commission that considers projects for scale-up once they have been operational in a city for a considerable amount of time. So, while some may argue that governments have a duty to directly provide services to female survivors of violence, there’s no saying that we can’t assist our governments in fulfilling their duties. In turn, governments can financially support and provide the personnel, connections and the kind of national scale needed for projects to reach their full potential.

At the Nobel Prize Series event in India in January 2017, Zariya India is emphasizing precisely this message of collaboration between government and innovative organizations. In addition to sharing Zariya’s lessons, successes, and challenges with the honorable Nobel Laureates and other delegates, we endeavor to start the right conversations with government and industry leaders about how to co-support purposeful ideas in a sustainable fashion.

  1. In addition to working to remedy sexual assault and domestic violence after it occurs, how can we work to prevent and end violence against women in the first place?

Hotlines that are reliable and actually work are the short-term solution. And, social education is the long-term solution to change a culture in which, somehow, violence against women is still okay in the 21st century. However, in terms of viability, culture is a rather uncontrollable animal with a will of its own. So, we can’t conclusively or even inconclusively identify when there will be a sea change in culture that will liberate society from violence against women. As you know, a policy reform can be made overnight, but reform in culture can take generations. Still, it’s important to mention that social education efforts need to be benevolently fashioned in a way that they genuinely inspire change in behavior towards women instead of inflaming more aggression. Don’t vilify “perpetrators” but inspire them to be better people.


Zariya’s team in action

Furthermore, at Zariya, we believe that remedy is inextricably connected to prevention. The more women who stand up for themselves and demand remedy, the more people will learn about this problem and come to realize that VAW is unacceptable. We think that those demanding remedy are the best and most effective anti-VAW advocates. At Zariya, our interest is ensuring that these women can stand up on their feet again and speak for themselves. Through our research in multiple cities across India (New Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad), we have learnt that silence prolongs violence. Of course, breaking the silence and speaking out needs to be done carefully in a manner that doesn’t hurt a woman’s case. Violence is bound to continue when there is an individual and collective silence around the issue. Zariya aims to break the cycle of violence by ending the silence in a safe, secure and confidential manner.

  1. How can people come forward to support Zariya’s mission?

Spread the word! Share Zariya’s website and updates on your social media. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Please also sign up for our mailing list to remain up to date with features, testimonials, vacancies and other developments at Zariya.

Please talk to women you know who are facing violence, show them Zariya’s website, and encourage them to reach out.

Visit our website and send us any feedback on product, content and design. We are always open to hear your valuable thoughts and comments on how we can continue improving Zariya to best serve survivors’ needs.

About SaharPicture1

Sahar Khan is the Founder of Zariya, a 501c3 non-profit that tackles violence against women. An
American raised in Arabia (from the age of 6 months), Sahar is a Stanford alumni who previously worked in The Hague and studied development in Cambridge.


Today (after a long pause between ‘Feature Fridays!’) I’d like to highlight an exciting new community-based lawyering organization in Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.  I’m truly excited about their approach, which truly aims to be far more community-based and involves not just litigation but community paralegalism, advocacy, and mobilization/movement-building.

JEI’s three prongs of work are: training community-based paralegals, engaging in movement building, and finally – strategic advocacy. JEI trains, monitors, and supports networks of individuals providing community-based paralegal services in rural and urban poor communities in Nigeria. A particularly exciting aspect of their model is their community-owned initiatives in Nigera. JEI helps to set up a membership association called the Community Legal Support Initiative (CLSI).  Before joining CLSI, communities set up  ‘community legal support committees’, which join the membership of CLSI and take an active role in overseeing and implementing activities to support paralegal services. CLSI subcommittees work closely with JEI to train, supervise, and mentor paralegals who show capacity and commitment to justice.

Second, through the paralegal network and more broadly, JEI supports movement-building and inter-community solidarity within and between poor and marginalized communities. Finally, when necessary, JEI undertakes strategic advocacy or litigation to backstop the work of paralegals and the activities of the broader community-based movement.  JEI provides direct litigation and advocacy support to individuals and communities in need. Priorities for strategic litigation and advocacy are identified by communities. JEI undertakes litigation before Nigerian courts, regional/international human rights bodies (e.g. ECOWAS Court or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), and advocacy before the National Human Rights Commission or the World Bank Inspection Panel. JEI works to make this sustainable through the Community Legal Services Initiative, where member communities establish community-managed funds for litigation and advocacy.

Check out this video highlighting JEI’s work in the Otto Ilogbo community in Lagos, Nigeria, which has been sacked by fire and violence that has chased hundreds of innocent residents from their homes.


Namati – a great new network on legal empowerment – has launched a wonderful new multimedia series called African Voices of Legal Empowerment.  The series includes a number of fascinating personal interviews with legal empowerment practitioners from all over the African continent discussing what they do. These lawyers and paralegals describe their work, tell stories of cases they’ve worked on, and describe how the work has changed them.

The interviews are inspiring, and tell a rare story of legal aid and empowerment – and how it can improve lives in concrete ways. This is a story that needs to be told, and I could not be more thrilled that Namati is finally bringing it to the world.

Daniel Sesay, a previous Paralegal with Timap for Justice, shares his story: 

Daniel Sesay is currently a Program Officer with Namati, Sierra Leone. Daniel joined Timap for Justice as a paralegal following his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of the country’s decade-long civil war. Now, with ongoing scale-up of paralegal operations in Sierra Leone and a recent Legal Aid Bill that formally recognizes paralegal practitioners, Daniel is playing a leading role in training paralegals and providing mentorship and technical advice to a range of legal empowerment organizations in the country

Namuchana Mushabati speaks about access to justice in Zambia:

Namuchana Mushabati is a trained lawyer working as a Programs Officer for the Legal, Sexual and Reproductive Rights Project with Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA). Through the Access to Justice program, the Zambia chapter of WLSA provides legal aid services to women and children in the capital city of Lusaka, as well as various rural districts throughout the country.

Check out the remaining video stories on legal empowerment in Africa here! It’s pretty great to directly hear the voices of men and women working on the ground to support and expand access to justice, and kudos to Namati for taking the initiative!


An exciting new website was launched recently by Women Deliver – on the International Day of the Girl Child. The website, called Catapult, is the first online funding platform dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women worldwide. By partnering with trusted organizations and connecting them with a new online audience, Catapult provides a call to action to help bring an end to gender inequality.

I think this new crowdfunding website is pretty great; although there are already a large number of crowdfunding non-profit and development websites (Global Giving, Jolkona, and Start Some Good come to mind), I think Catapult still adds something to the space through its focus on organizations working with women and girls across the globe. As Catapult notes, “Girls’ and women’s organizations are chronically underfunded, despite their key role in addressing inequality. One-fifth of all women’s organizations report the threat of closure, and only two cents of every development dollar goes toward adolescent girls. Investing in girls and women strengthens families, communities and nations.”

The website includes categories for projects focused on issues such as gender-based violence, sex trafficking, education, health, media, and war & crisis. The design is sleek and easily navigable, and I don’t find any of the photos or descriptions I’ve briefly perused to be disempowering or exploitative – which is a great thing!

Catapult projects also break down how donations will be used. Even better, NGOs can totally apply the donations raised to administrative expenses (which are often the hardest to cover through grants and other forms of donations). And best of all – it’s free for NGOs. Most online donation websites seem to require some fee or percentage of the donation. The fact that it is free opens it up to a lot of incredible grassroots NGOs that may not have the money or resources to otherwise fundraise online!

Some of their projects include: a Mobile Literacy Class, using mobile phones and texting to accelerate literacy for Afghan girls and women; Birth Waiting Homes for Women in Sierra Leone, housing pregnant women in homes close to hospitals to avoid long, dangerous journeys while in labor; and Empowering Youth to Challenge Early Marriage, helping young people, particularly boys and men, to challenge the underlying attitudes of child marriage.

 Check out Catapult.org for more — and needless to say, I’m happy to support them!


Things are changing — slowly but surely — in the world of legal empowerment and legal aid. In Sierra Leone, the Parliament recently enacted “one of the most progressive legal aid laws in Africa—with an innovative approach to providing access to justice for all that will reinforce the rule of law,” as noted by the Open Society Institute’s blog. This bill was approved with consensus by Sierra Leone’s house in less than one hour. The bill provides the “legal architecture for Sierra Leone’s first nationwide legal aid system.” As OSI’s Sonkita Conteh writes,

The bill provides for a mixed model of criminal and civil legal aid, from provision of legal information and mediation services through to representation in court, and supplied through a public/private partnership of government, private sector and civil society. By explicitly providing that paralegals are to be deployed in each of Sierra Leone’s 149 chiefdoms, the law ensures that a flexible and cost effective method of delivering justice services to large parts of the population will be available, in a country that doesn’t have a sufficient supply of qualified lawyers, especially outside the capital, Freetown. In addition to paralegals it also endorses university law clinics, civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations, alongside legal practitioners, as providers of legal aid services.

And here’s a great video following the work of a community-based paralegal from Timap for Justice, a local legal empowerment organization:

And some links I loved…

Shanley Knox writes beautifully about feminism, religion, and revolutions.
“We’re the ones changing your world. We’re the women starting our own businesses and clothing lines and starting revolutions in Egypt – the women who say what we think.”

A great series on IntLawGrrls on Kony 2012, and the peace/justice divide.
“While the prosecution of Kony might have been a critical component of the justice process, many Ugandans thought it should not happen at the expense of the victims (many of whom had become refugees) who wanted to return home and rebuild their lives.”

Wonderful post at How Matters on downward accountability.
“Downward accountability is ultimately about defining impact in a way that places beneficiaries’ perceptions center-stage.”

Roxanne never fails to amaze with stories of her travels in Jerusalem.
“I feel myself gliding like a ghost through the stages of grief: denial, anger, remembrance, nostalgia. I am mourning the end of the Jerusalem chapter.”

Stanford Law Professor Erik Jensen, founder of Afghanistan Legal Education Project, writes:
“The empirical side of me knows the odds of short or even medium-term success in Afghanistan, but I’m also inspired by the people I have worked with in Afghanistan. The Afghan vision of a better future is there, and those Afghans deserve our support as we move forward.”


This Friday, I want to feature something a little different. Not an organization, but a little-known new UN Resolution which is truly groundbreaking. In a number of countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, access to legal services (even when accused of a crime) is unfortunately not a guaranteed human right. In the U.S., our criminal justice system is deeply flawed and racialized, with unequal access to high-quality criminal defense. However, this basic right is not even guaranteed for the poor in many parts of the world, leading to protracted pre-trial detention periods.

Often, people have been in prison for up to 10 years (!) without ever having met a lawyer or seen the inside of a courtroom. On top of this, prison conditions in many countries are so wretched that many prisoners – convicted and pre-trial alike – never get out. Tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases, combined with poor sanitation and lack of space in many cases leads to illness or death. The number of lawyers in several countries is grossly inadequate compared to the need for legal services. So, it is clear why states must begin instituting public defense systems to ensure those charged with a crime can be adequately represented.

Enter the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, adopted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.  This is the first international instrument on legal aid, so it is truly groundbreaking. According to a great blog post by the Open Society Institute:

The genesis of this resolution was the 2004 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa. In 2007 ECOSOC called on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to develop a global instrument. Since 2009 groups of experts, from all continents, including the Open Society Justice Initiative, have gathered several times in Vienna to draw together best practices and develop a draft that was reviewed by the Member States in 2011. The result is a practical document that traces the criminal justice system from the pretrial to post-trial stage and highlights a number of important components:

  • Prompt access to legal aid at all stages of the criminal justice process.
  • The involvement of a diversity of legal aid providers including lawyers, university legal clinicians and paralegals.
  • The development of a nationwide legal aid system that is sufficiently staffed and resourced.

Namati also has a good overview. This is deeply exciting and inspiring news: the world is finally beginning to recognize the importance of basic legal services for the poor. Of course, now begins the hard work of implementation, but this instrument can provide a basic foundation and blueprint from which governments and civil society groups can start. And with an eye to legal aid issues related to gender: I also hope we can eventually move towards similar resolutions relating to legal services for survivors of gender-based violence as well as asylum seekers, populations who are also in dire need of basic legal services, and who are frequently in life and death situations to boot.


An incredible new movement of young people – women and men – in Afghanistan is arising to change the status quo around women’s rights in the country. This movement is called Young Women for Change (YWC), a non-profit consisting of volunteer advocates throughout Afghanistan which was founded in April 2011. YWC was co-founded by Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary, and is a new advocacy organization fostering a grassroots feminist movement led by young Afghan women.

Opening of Sahar Gul Net Cafe (taken from YWC Facebook Album)

The website features blogs from young Afghan women about women’s empowerment, and showcases the voice of youth activists. YWC is especially unique because they held the first ever anti-street harassment march in Afghanistan, in Kabul. They also have plans to conduct the “first-ever large-scale study of sexual harassment in Afghanistan” very soon. Most recently, they raised funds to open the “Sahar Gul Net Cafe” – a safe space for women to come together, talk, network, learn to use the computer, and go online.   Their Facebook page has become an online hub for their activism and an exciting space for ongoing discussion of women’s rights and empowerment in Afghanistan.  Make sure to like them and support their cause; it’s exciting to see a new movement of young women standing up for their rights in Afghanistan! This is exactly the kind of grassroots movements we need in Afghanistan, and I hope women around the world can join and support them in their struggle for gender equity.

Young Women for Change on International Women's Day (Taken from Facebook page)


Yesterday, I ran into a truly amazing new organization – Namati: Innovations in Legal Empowerment. Frequently here, I have written about the need for a legal empowerment and access to justice movement, and a greater focus on funding programs that provide legal services to the poor, especially community based paralegals and outreach workers.

Namati is exactly the type of organization I have been envisioning, and I am so excited it has been started. Namati is a new international organization that “tests the potential of legal empowerment through innovative interventions and research.” Their work seeks a “better understanding of the impacts of legal empowerment and the most effective mechanisms for achieving them.” Essentially, Namati has been created to foster a new movement for legal empowerment.

One component of cultivating this movement is their online network, called the Global Legal Empowerment Network. This is a much needed network to bring together people involved in legal empowerment and access to justice issues worldwide. I’ve joined, and found it to have great potential to be an excellent forum for connection with likeminded folks, discussion over issues within legal empowerment, and a source of collected valuable research and tools.

Namati’s second goal is to implement innovative legal empowerment interventions in partnership with governments and civil society organizations in a number of countries. Here are some examples of their interventions (from this fact sheet):

  • In Sierra Leone, develop a network of community paralegals, based on the model of Timap for Justice, to confront the challenge of scale in the delivery of basic legal aid.
  • In Uganda, Liberia, and Mozambique, strengthen the capacity of communities to complete community land titling procedures, protect their land rights, and sustainably manage their natural resources.

But finally, what is “legal empowerment?” According to Namati, it is first, a movement that provides communities with concrete methods of protecting their rights, apart from the “naming and shaming” blame game that many traditional human rights organizations pursue. And second, it is a way for communities to hold their governments and institutions accountable for development outcomes. Legal empowerment helps to create more empowered communities and more accountable governments. According to the same fact sheet:

Legal empowerment programs often combine a small corps of lawyers with a larger frontline of community paralegals who are trained in basic law and tools like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. Namati’s CEO Vivek Maru co-founded a paralegal program in Sierra Leone, called Timap for Justice, soon after the end of an 11-year civil war there.

A World Bank assessment found that Timap paralegals often manage to squeeze justice out of a broken system: stop a school master from beating children; negotiate child support payments from a derelict father; persuade the water authority to repair a well. In exceptionally intractable cases, as when a mining company in the southern province damaged six villages’ land and abandoned the region without paying compensation, a tiny corps of lawyers can resort to litigation and higher-level advocacy to obtain a remedy.

I also found this blog post about the founding of Namati and the vision behind the organization to be deeply inspiring. And in particular, the idea that while there is a strong global movement for global health and a conversation around effective models for health care, there is really no such conversation going for legal empowerment and access to justice programs. There are not many guidelines to follow or models proven to be effective. I love that Namati is seeking to foster and grow this new movement, and create a space for valuable discussion and sharing of resources that is much needed. I am excited to see where this fledgling movement goes, and to hopefully be a part of it in the near future.