Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Justice for women: Access, empowerment and representation

From conflict-affected countries and fragile states, to the halls of the most powerful decision-making bodies, women face significant barriers when it comes to access to justice, gender equality and empowerment.

While Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, barriers to women’s access to justice - be they social, political, economic or legal - remain widespread.

In tandem with the 38th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, IDLO hosted a high-level side event, Access to Justice for Women and Girls – Rule of Law in Action, on Monday, June 25. The event engaged high-level panelists hailing from diverse regions, who shared perspectives and experiences on the role of the rule of law in achieving access to justice, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Women's access to justice

Women and girls around the world continue to suffer from inequitable laws and policies with more than 150 countries retaining legal provisions that discriminate against women, placing the rule of law squarely at the core of gender equality.

“At the heart of the rule of law lies the principle of equality: equal protection and equal rights. That’s what justice is all about,” remarked IDLO’s Director-General Irene Khan during the panel discussion.

Panelists recognized that, oftentimes, formal justice solutions for cases that affect women in particular, such as gender-based violence, domestic, family or land rights issues, are out of reach.

This can be especially true in conflict-affected contexts. Ms. Sima Samar, Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the former Minister of Women’s Affairs, offered perspectives from Afghanistan.

While great strides have been made in Afghanistan over the years - including the inclusion of the word “woman” in the new Constitution, an increase in the number of female prosecutors, the creation of special units within the Attorney General’s office to deal with violence against women cases, and the criminalization of honor killings in the violence against woman law – access to justice remains elusive for many in the country.

“Access to justice for women is not luxury – it is a basic human right related to human dignity.” She continued, “If there’s no justice for women, there’s no justice for anyone.”

“Access to justice for women is not luxury – it is a basic human right related to human dignity. If there’s no justice for women, there’s no justice for anyone.”

Women as #ChampionsOfJustice: Representation of women in the justice sector

The panel acknowledged that lack of access to justice for women is in part perpetuated by the underrepresentation of female professionals in the justice sector.

Hon. Ihsan Zuhdi Barakat, the first female justice on the Supreme Court in Jordan, spoke to her own experience about how women can be influential figures at the top of the “judiciary pyramid”:

“The participation of women is essential to push forward progress for women. It can make it easier to deal with cases pertaining to women,” she remarked. “But I believe when women are judges they can push forward human rights in society in general, not only women’s and children’s rights.”

Underrepresentation of women is not exclusively a national challenge. Ms. Jan Beagle, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Management, noted that the United Nations is working to increase representation of women at senior levels of the Organization. The UN Secretary-General, Mr. António Guterres, has put gender equality at the center of his ambitious reform agenda and has launched the system-wide Gender Parity Strategy.

Significant progress has been made, with women occupying over 50 per cent of the Secretary-General’s Senior Management Team in 2018, but accelerated efforts are needed to reach ambitious parity targets across the UN system by 2028. For sustainable results, “gender needs to be prioritized programmatically and organizationally,” Ms. Beagle urged. 

Rights awareness

Panelists recognized that the rule of law is not the only factor in realizing justice for women. IDLO Director-General Khan called gender equality a “multi-dimensional issue”, remarking on how the interplay of class, education, rural versus urban contexts, political and social status greatly affects gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Citing the example of femicide in his home country of Peru, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Mr. Diego García-Sayán, noted that the political environment and the role of the media in increasing awareness about women’s rights are critical components. The Special Rapporteur shared the recommendations on judicial councils and governance that he had presented immediately before as part of his annual report to the Council. He spoke of the importance of incorporating a gender lens within the courts, but also highlighted the role of culture and environment.

“If we only concentrate on the formal rule of law approach, that can be a false solution,” he commented. “We should be asking: ‘What is the national conscience being created?’”

H.E. Athaliah Lesiba Molokomme, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Botswana to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva and member of the Pathfinders Task Force on Justice, echoed the importance of awareness-raising, particularly among justice-seekers themselves.

“Access to justice is access to information. Women need to know about their rights and how to access them.” 

“Justice for women must be transformative, not only about punishing a perpetrator. It needs to be about outcome, agency, participation, and it has to be inclusive – leaving no woman or girl behind.”

Women's human rights and the development agenda

In her closing remarks, Director-General Khan noted that the 2030 Agenda places access to justice, rule of law, strong institutions, peace and women’s human rights together under the same agenda.

The 2030 Agenda presents a new paradigm shift, whereby justice for women is considered from all angles, including legal and social empowerment. “Justice for women must be transformative, not only about punishing a perpetrator,” she concluded. “It needs to be about outcome, agency, participation, and it has to be inclusive – leaving no woman or girl behind.”

Organized in partnership with the Human Rights Council’s Rule of Law Group, comprising the Permanent Missions in Geneva of Ethiopia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, and the United Kingdom, the event also represented an extension of IDLO’s commitment to championing access to justice for women and girls, including through its recent inaugural meeting of the High-level Group on Justice for Women.

IDLO’s Strategy 2020 is inspired by the vision of the 2030 Agenda and its goals of advancing access to justice, combatting inequalities and promoting social inclusion. IDLO’s work on gender continues to be a cross-cutting theme throughout its programs and advocacy, recognizing the mutually reinforcing nature of Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment, and Goal 16 on the rule of law.