Women’s Access to Justice: A Transformational Approach
Brief summary of presentation of information made
In many countries of the world women and girls, in particular, still face serious discrimination in law, in the interpretation and implementation of the law, and in practice in the enjoyment of their rights. Women and girls also face particular obstacles and restrictions in accessing legal aid and justice services on equal terms. Certain groups of women and girls, such as those with disabilities, members of ethnic or other minority groups, residents in remote rural areas, living in conflict-affected areas are forced to flee often face multiple or intersectional discrimination in access to justice.
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has stated that gender stereotyping, discriminatory laws, procedural and evidentiary requirements and practices, and a failure to ensure physical, economic, social and cultural accessibility of judicial mechanisms are amongst the most common obstacles for women to access justice. Providing access to justice for women is an essential component in the realization of all human rights for women and girls rights protected under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Women’s effective and equal access to justice is a fundamental element of the rule of law, and it helps to optimize the “emancipatory and transformative potential” of the law. This topic is highly relevant in light of the adoption and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG 16 and its target on promoting the rule of law at all levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all. SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering women constitutes another strong commitment to address the justice needs of women and girls. When adopting the 2030 Agenda Member States committed themselves to significantly increase investments to close the gender gap, to strengthen support for gender equality institutions at all levels and to systematically embed gender perspectives into all aspects of implementation.
The need for a transformational approach to women’s access to justice is particularly acute in conflict and post-conflict settings. In such contexts justice must address not only the singular violations against women and girls, but must also seek to transform the underlying inequalities which render women and girls vulnerable during times of conflict. States parties should address structural gender inequality, including through women’s direct participation in shaping transitional justice mechanisms, the establishment of specialized and easily accessible courts to address violations against women and girls, and engagement with informal justice mechanisms to ensure that informal processes are brought into line with human rights and gender equality standards.
This event provided opportunity for Member States to share good practices, challenges and lessons learned on enhancing women’s access to justice, including in fragile and post-conflict settings. It also provided an opportunity to learn more about the normative work and recommendations of the CEDAW Committee on women’s access to justice, and States parties’ commitments and obligations in this area. This event follows up on a high-level meeting on women’s access to justice held in 2012, providing an opportunity for Member States to report on the implementation of the voluntary pledges to enhance women’s access to justice made on that occasion.
Panelist for this event
H.E. Ambassador Marja Lehto, Senior Expert of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and Chair of the Executive Board of Justice Rapid Response discussed access to justice for women in Finland. Despite a long tradition of gender equality in Finland, violence against women continues to persist, as was also shown by a survey conducted by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014.In this context, Ambassador Lehto described several significant activities that Finland is undertaking to prevent, and provide redress for violence against women. For example, Finland is working to establish an effective mechanism to coordinate national activities to combat violence against women, as required by the Istanbul Convention. Ambassador Lehto also spoke about Finland’s support to the international organization Justice Rapid Response, which operates a roster of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) justice experts, jointly with UN Women. Experts from the roster are rapidly deployed to national and international accountability mechanisms, to bolster their capacity to investigate and prosecute conflict-related SGBV. Ambassador Lehto closed her remarks with a reminder that the upcoming Security Council open debate on Women, Peace and Security provides an important opportunity for Member States to reiterate their commitments to implementing resolution 1325 (2000), including on women’s access to justice post-conflict.
H.E. Ambassador Lewis G. Brown, II, Permanent Representative of Liberia to the United Nations, described the context in Liberia for women’s access to justice, noting that Liberia is ranked as one of the countries in which governance standards have improved the most in the last decade. However, significant gaps remain in ensuring access to justice for all. Impediments include the lack of women’s political participation at the local level and the stigma attached to sexual violence, particularly among young girls. Ambassador Brown also described the significant work that Liberia is doing to overcome these challenges. These include the implementation of the country’s national action plan (NAP) on UN Security Council resolution 1325, which has played an integral role in ensuring that women participate in the national security sector and in national decision-making; the creation of a gender focal point in each government agency, to ensure that gender is mainstreamed across all programmes; and a joint programme with UN Women, to strengthen the entire formal justice sector and its response to SGBV. As an example of the results of these and other efforts to expand women’s access to justice, Ambassador Brown shared that Circuit Court E has increased the number of indictments for rape from 9 during its 2014 term, to 121 during its 2015 term.
Mr. Sudhir Bhattarai Under-Secretary and Director, United Nations, Other International Organizations and International Law Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal, described his country’s long struggle for inclusive democracy, and its ongoing work to improve women’s access to justice. Nepal has recently adopted a new constitution, which includes provisions relating to pluralism, rule of law, gender equality, and social and economic rights. Nepal is also implementing a national action plan on UN Security Council resolutions 1325 and 1820, which promotes women’s participation in post-conflict reconstruction. However, significant obstacles remain to ensuring women’s access to justice, including lack of financial resources for legal assistance, family honor and taboos which prevent victims of gender-based violence from reporting and seeking assistance, and a lack of knowledge of the available legal remedies. To address these challenges, Mr. Bhattarai pointed to the importance of developing and implementing a gender justice framework and anti-discrimination laws, strengthening free legal assistance, enhancing the protection available to victims after reporting, and ensuring public education on legal remedies for SGBV.
Ms. Purna Sen, Director, Policy Division, UN Women, highlighted recent policy developments and key themes from the panel discussion. She reminded the audience that, while no country provides a full safe haven for women from violence, all countries have committed to eliminate violence against women by 2030. The human rights framework on women’s access to justice, including the CEDAW Committee’s general recommendations 30 and 33, must be central to State and UN efforts to ensure universal access to justice. Access to justice must be about more than prosecuting crimes; justice must also empower women, and transform underlying gender inequalities which render women vulnerable to violence.
In a discussion with the audience, a representative of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) provided an update on a pledge made in 2012, to undertake a global survey of the role of women in justice sector institutions and to analyze the legal barriers to women’s access to justice, and shared IDLO’s 2014 report, Out of the Shadows, On to the Bench: Women in Afghanistan’s Justice Sector. A representative of the Mission of Brazil to the United Nations also shared updates on women’s access to justice in his country, and reiterated that rule of law is not only about creating standards of behavior—it is about promoting inclusion and engagement.
What was of particular significance to share with The Salvation Army globally?
For the Salvation Army this was more of an informational session for us to understand what countries are doing and what they have committed to doing. The meeting provided an opportunity for Member States to report on the implementation of the voluntary pledges to enhance women’s access to justice that they made back in 2012 in that High Level meeting on Women’s Access to Justice.