Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Commission on the Status of Women 58th Session

New York
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Mr. Chair, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates

As Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, the only inter-governmental organization exclusively devoted to advancing the rule of law, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to address the Commission in this year that marks the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform.

As we stock take progress made on the Millennium Development Goals and work towards shaping the new development agenda, we must not be complacent but be honest and look at what has been missing from the agenda. Violence against women is one such issue.

The landmark 2012 Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels recognized “the importance of ensuring that women, on the basis of the equality of men and women, fully enjoy the benefits of the rule of law, and commit to using law to uphold their equal rights and ensure their full and equal participation, including in institutions of governance and the judicial system, and recommit to establishing appropriate legal and legislative frameworks to prevent and address all forms of discrimination and violence against women and to secure their empowerment and full access to justice.”

Why does the rule of law matter? Because it is fundamentally about equality, we are all equal in the eyes of the law entitled to equal protection and also accountable to the law for what we do, no matter who we are.

Yet laws and institutions by themselves are not enough to establish the rule of law. There may be situations where the law discriminates and institutions exclude and marginalize poor people: for example, when the law discriminates against women and minorities, or denies birth registration to children who are then deprived of legal identity; or does not recognize the existence of an urban slum, so that the people who live there are denied access to water, sanitation and other basic services by municipal authorities.

Historically, the law has not been on the side of women. They have been ignored, discriminated and excluded from the equal protection of the law, often denied legal personality or individual identity. Notoriously restrictive on rights and freedom of women: subjugation to husbands fathers, husbands, brothers; what they can own or might inherit; what control they have over their own bodies; what they can wear or not.

In family law, women continue to be discriminated against in the areas of marriage, divorce and child custody. Many justice systems do not treat gender-based violence as a criminal offence, or they consider it to be a family matter for which a fine against the offender will suffice

To compound matters, it is often difficult for women to navigate the formal legal systems, which are often notoriously expensive, remote (physically and intellectually) and there are clear barriers are times. Access to formal justice systems is generally very costly – most women across the world simply cannot pay for a lawyer or expensive court’s proceedings.

So, as we strive to identify what is missing from the MDGs. For example, the MDGs have generally ignored the issue of equality. That silence has had a huge human cost: pregnant women who cannot access life-saving health care, children who drop out of school, people who are condemned to live in dire poverty in countries that that have made remarkable economic progress. Inequality is a social problem, moral concern, and also a political issue. Grossly unequal societies are often unstable societies. Gross disparities are morally reprehensible, legally untenable and politically, economically and socially dangerous.

Our work on gender equality and legal empowerment of women over many years has shown that in many countries justice by women produces better justice for women. As part of our contribution to the discussions on the new development agenda, we launched the first country report on women in the justice sector looking at the case study of Afghanistan.

Improving women’s ability to work in justice institutions ensures

  • democracy and equality of opportunity in the workplace
  • that the specific interests of women are represented and advanced in justice institutions, and
  • provides better access to justice and fair outcomes for women, not because women are inherently more just than men but because in many traditional societies women are better able to seek justice when they deal with women lawyers, judges, court officers or prosecutors.

Women lawyers and judges may understand better the situation these women victims and petitioners face. Women policy makers can better ensure that women’s views and interests are included in justice policies and regulatory frameworks. At a time when we focus on the need for women to access justice, increasing the number of women justice professionals can both encourage women to approach the justice systems and improve the quality of justice they will receive.

The new development framework must be based on a clear commitment to women’s rights and the rule of law. We cannot fight poverty or promote sustainable development or inclusive economies when justice and accountability systems do not properly function; when poor people are not able to participate freely in decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods; when the law itself discriminates against women and minorities; when opportunities are only open to a few based on wealth and privilege, and when corruption and bribery distort access to justice and basic services.

Without respect for the rule of law, human rights and women’s rights, we will fail, not only to make development work equally for everyone, but will also fail to prioritize those who are the most vulnerable, the most marginalized and most in need.

IDLO knows from its work around the world that the rule of law can play a crucial role in closing the gap between the promise of development and the reality of deprivation and discrimination. Good laws and regulations, fairly administered by responsive and accountable institutions, can transform societies, especially when such measures are accompanied by the legal empowerment of citizens and full participation of civil society.

At this critical juncture, the international community has the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to gender equality, including through the drafting of targets and indicators that amplify women’s voices, leadership and participation in justice institutions.