An event organized by IDLO to coincide with the 22nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva heard from a great number of participants. Focusing on women’s access to justice, the meeting was supported by the Australian, Austrian and Finnish governments. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Paula Schriefer spoke of her country’s experience in recognizing gender as a human right, most recently through the 2011 National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which aims to empower women to build peace in countries threatened and affected by war. As the event unfolded, two other prominent guests, lawyers and rights activists Hina Jilani of Pakistan and Miriam Estrada-Castillo of Ecuador, offered IDLO their own take on women’s empowerment.
HINA JILANI, former UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan
Q: How much momentum is there behind improving women’s access to justice – especially for victims of violence?
A: I think there is momentum as far as legislation is concerned, and certain very good reforms have taken place in several countries in recent years. Nevertheless, legislation alone doesn’t change anything, and access to justice means having mechanisms on the ground for victims to use, so they get the full benefit of the law. There, I think the momentum is not as much as we would like it to be. At both the national and the international levels, there is more emphasis on lawmaking, on standard-setting, without perhaps the concentration that we would like to see on applying the law.
Q: What, specifically, would you like to see done at the international level?
A: I think international bodies have done a great deal on work – on violence against women in particular. But more should be done to tackle discrimination, because that too affects access to justice. I also think there should be a move toward changing certain principles of law in some cases. The whole principle of criminal justice, of proving something beyond reasonable doubt, is perfectly all right, but only as long as we know what reasonable doubt is. What is reasonable doubt in cases of rape, for example? Reasonable doubt must be defined so that successful prosecutions of rape can take place – especially in cases where the only witness is the victim herself. The whole concept of evidence in such cases should be reviewed. And this review, tackled at the international level, will set the tone for domestic jurisdictions.
Q: You own country, Pakistan, has a terrible record of violence and discrimination against women and girls. What are you personally doing to help address this?
A: The violence and discrimination against women and girls in Pakistan is of great critical concern to the human rights movement. But remember also that Pakistan has one of the most energetic and cohesive women’s movements. The issue of violence, of women’s access to justice, is very high on the agenda. We have achieved a lot, and yes, we need to go a lot further. The country’s unstable political environment affects, of course, the way human rights defenders like myself can reach targets and goals. So it’s a continuous story of forward steps and backsliding. But in terms of legislation, we now have a framework, which may not be adequate enough, but is better than what we had before.
MIRIAM ESTRADA, former social affairs minister of Ecuador, visiting professor at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs of Lund, Sweden.
Q: Isn’t there a disconnect between the growing international body of law on women’s rights, and the reality in many countries?
A: I believe so, yes. We need a bridge between these two worlds: on the one hand, the international community, producing conventions, treaties, declarations, and the monitoring bodies that go with it – and, on the other hand, the struggle of women on the ground. There is, in fact, a disconnect not just between the international and the national levels, but even within the international community, which complicates things yet more.
Q: From your experience studying and promoting women’s rights in Latin America, do events there in the last couple of decades give grounds for hope? Is there a lesson for other regions?
Actually, yes – and it’s something I’m very proud of. Look at the Inter-American Convention on Violence against Women: it was the world’s first such document, adopted as far back as 1994 [at Belem in Brazil]. Then, the world’s first quota law was also passed in a Latin American country, Argentina. And it’s also in Argentina that we had the example of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo [in Buenos Aires, where women would protest again and again against the disappearance by the junta of their male relatives]. Just by standing there, just by demonstrating their determination to get justice, they got justice in the end.
Q: Speaking of justice, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to gender equality – in Latin America and elsewhere?
A: The obstacles are about thought patterns. Mental blocks. If we’re talking about the countries I know best, those with a Latin heritage, these thought patterns and mental blocks have been developed and upheld by the law over two-and-a-half thousand years; it’s very hard to change them overnight. Yes, we must try relentlessly. However, my message to feminists and women’s rights activists is that we need solidarity and unity. We cannot go forward unless we take everyone with us in this endeavor – and above all, men. And when I say everyone, I do mean all actors: academics, politicians regardless of their differences, the private sector, the media, everyone... And this, not just for the defense of women’s rights, but, considering what the world is going through, for the defense of peace.