“We are privileged to protect the rights of all women, but especially those who are the most vulnerable, who are poor, who have no voice, and who […] put their lives in our hands,” opened Judge Susana Medina de Rizzo of the Superior Court of Justice of Entre Rios, Argentina, and President of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) at a roundtable organized by IDLO and IAWJ in The Hague. The event, Women’s Access to Justice: Lessons, Models and Emerging Issues, convened professionals working in the justice sector from around the world including judges, lawyers at international tribunals and other legal organizations, government and non-governmental representatives.
Drawing from country and global experiences, the discussions explored the continuing challenges women face in accessing justice and why they continue to persist, the emerging gender issues that have come forth in recent years, and lessons and models to use to ensure fair justice outcomes for women and girls.
The panellists shared examples from their own work on topics ranging from domestic violence, sexual and gender based violence, gender biases in court, child marriage, discriminatory criminal laws, lack of gender sensitivity amongst the police and the many other vulnerable situations women encounter around the world, especially if they hope to seek legal remedies. “When a woman makes the decision to litigate a matter in court, she is taking a life risk that may jeopardize the well-being of her family,” said Faustina Pereira, IDLO’s Director of Global Initiatives.
The discussions revealed an important pattern illustrating that many challenges are not related to the law only, but also to the mindsets influencing formal and informal judicial structures, gender stereotypes and customs embedded in the fabric of society, as well as weak linkages within the whole of the justice chain as well as with other services.
“You can have the best laws on the books, but if they’re not implemented or understood, even the best laws can be useless,” remarked Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and President-elect of IAWJ.
As women make up a disproportionate number of vulnerable groups, participants agreed that it is not sufficient for laws to be non-discriminatory. To advance women’s access to justice, there must be comprehensive initiatives to foster inclusion and to apply the law in a way that is sensitive to the needs of women.
The roundtable went beyond mechanisms and programs to implement in addressing gender injustices but also discussed the gender perspective on solving problems. After hearing about the many models developed by women justice professionals, the Honorable Judge Robyn Tupman, District Court of New South Wales, Australia, stated what emerged clearly during the discussion: “If you want something done, turn to women judges.”
With reference to IDLO’s Gender Pledge and programming experience, IDLO’s Senior Gender Advisor Rea Chiongson commented, “We see supporting women justice professionals as a priority.” She highlighted IDLO’s work, such as in Afghanistan and Tunisia, to identify barriers women justice professionals face and support their effective participation in justice delivery.
IDLO’s upcoming Gender Strategy will build upon UN Sustainable Development Goals 16 and 5, particularly as it prioritizes the participation of women in the justice sector as a specific development goal and as a catalyst for accessing justice.
The discussions also highlighted that women’s access to justice means more than criminal justice, or simply going to court, it involves enabling women to be able to claim a whole range of goods and services through a variety of dispute resolution mechanisms, including locally. “Women’s access to justice doesn’t always mean going to court. Sometimes justice is found at the community level,” Ms. Chiongson continued.
This means that there are many opportunities to promote women throughout the justice chain as legislators, police officers, prosecutors, community leaders and judges. With increased women’s participation, pathways for women’s access to justice can become more accessible. Judge Ruiz summarized, “The faces of justice have to reflect the people they are sworn to protect.”