International Development Law Organization

Advancing gender parity in international justice

“The rule of law is fundamentally about equality. We are all equal in the eyes of the law and entitled to equal protection,” remarked Director-General Irene Khan at the Opening Ceremony of the GQUAL Conference on 3 October. “The meaningful participation of women in international bodies is a right well-recognized in international documents, but a long way from realization.”

Set against the backdrop of the highly symbolic Peace Palace in The Hague - known as the International City of Peace and Justice - supporters of the GQUAL campaign convened to discuss the considerable under-representation of women affecting virtually all international tribunals and monitoring bodies.

Gqual Conference

The Opening Ceremony kicked off the two-day conference from 4 – 5 October on the two-year anniversary of the GQUAL campaign.

In September 2015, GQUAL was launched at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, alongside leading academics, legal scholars, lawyers, jurists, activists and international organizations, including IDLO. The campaign seeks to raise awareness about the lack of gender parity prevalent in institutions that play key roles in developing international law, human rights, international relations, and cooperation.

Among the main areas of work for the campaign are to invest in research to understand the causes and consequences of underrepresentation, and to enhance institutional mechanisms that could offer potential solutions. The campaign also seeks to garner political commitment from governments to change the national nomination and voting processes for international positions. 

To date, over 1,500 women and men have signed the GQUAL Declaration from over 90 countries.

The Conference covered subjects from the historic underrepresentation of women in international tribunals to guidelines on selection procedures in order to reconcile the gender gap at the international level. The Conference culminated with the GQUAL Action Plan, where signatories pledged to implement actions within the spheres of their influence in support of the campaign.

Watch Ms. Rea Abada Chiongson, IDLO’s Senior Gender Advisor, present the GQUAL Action Plan.

Presenting the Action Plan, Ms. Rea Abada Chiongson, IDLO’s Senior Gender Advisor stated, “we have heard about how collective action is very important.  And there have been a growing number of studies that state that collective action is among the main drivers for enabling change. The GQUAL Action Plan, embodies this collective spirit through concrete action points for moving forward together.”

Status of women: Progress and setbacks

While much progress has been made to advance gender equality worldwide, parity remains elusive. Citing statistics in her remarks, GQUAL founder Ms. Viviana Krsticevic stated that “progress is not always linear and that significant setbacks are possible in these bodies.”

Ms. Krsticevic mentioned that a survey of the composition of 84 international bodies revealed that women represent only 26 per cent of judges in international courts. In its 70 years of existence, the International Court of Justice, housed in the Peace Palace, has had only 4 women out of a total of 106 justices. And, 18 out of 57 UN Special Rapporteur positions have never been held by women.

The Vice President of Costa Rica, Ana Helena Chacón, invoked Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development in her remarks, connecting the GQUAL campaign to its overarching mandate and most expressly in Goal 5 which aims to advance gender equality and empower all women and girls: “We need to change the picture of international justice. A real democracy is only possible if we leave no one behind.”

Vice President of Costa Rica, Ana Helena Chacón, speaking at the Opening Ceremony of the GQUAL Conference in The Hague. 

“We need to change the picture of international justice.  A real democracy is only possible if we leave no one behind.”

Vice President Chacón also noted a promising yet conservative increase in the number of women parliamentarians worldwide, from 13 per cent in 2000 to 23 per cent in 2017 according to data by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. “This is clearly not enough, but it proves that we are capable of transforming our world if we throw ourselves into action,” she commented.

IDLO’s support for women justice professionals

IDLO’s gender work is premised on using the rule of law to effectively contribute to gender equality, including enabling the equal participation of women in the justice sector . The organization’s programs focus on promoting gender equality by dismantling discriminatory laws and empowering women to achieve parity at the national level as a means to securing better international representation.

“Growing women justice professionals at national and local levels is important because it would widen the potential pool of candidates for international institutions, build political support from the bottom-up and make gender parity not something for global legal elite, but something ordinary people can care about,” remarked Ms. Khan. “If we do not crack the glass ceiling at local level, it will be harder to do so at the international level.”

“If we do not crack the glass ceiling at local level, it will be harder to do so at the international level.”

IDLO Director-General Irene Khan speaking at the Opening Ceremony of the GQUAL Conference. 

Across countries and contexts, IDLO’s experience has shown that where barriers in both informal and formal justice systems can render justice inaccessible to women, female justice actors – lawyers, judges, court officers or prosecutors – can help to bridge the gaps. However, women often face challenges that prevent their effective participation in the justice sector. IDLO’s report, Women’s Professional Participation in Afghanistan’s Justice Sector: Challenges and Opportunities, examined these obstacles within the Afghan context, where women represent only 8.4  per cent of judges, 6 per cent of prosecutors and 19.3 per cent of lawyers.

Through an Afghan-led data collection process, the research findings revealed that factors such as negative familial and societal perceptions, lack of respect from male colleagues, lack of security for female legal professionals and unequal access to legal education were among the main challenges for women in the justice sector. The report has been welcomed by justice actors as the first of its kind in Afghanistan’s history and an important contribution to ongoing discussions concerning gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment in the country.

As part of another project, IDLO has undertaken similar research in Tunisia for a stronger understanding of the barriers and pathways for women in Tunisia’s justice sector, and, ultimately, to support the effective participation of women justice professionals in justice delivery and policy making in the country.

IDLO also helps to facilitate women’s participation in national and international associations for women judges. In Kyrgyzstan, as part of its efforts to strengthen the judiciary, IDLO has been supporting the Kyrgyz Association of Women Judges to enable female Kyrgyz judges to benefit from the experience of other female justice professionals in their country and around the world. At the institutional level, IDLO has collaborated with the International Association of Women Judges to foster exchange between female judges and bolster international networks of support.

Through these initiatives, IDLO has seen the improvements in women’s pathways to justice. “The quality of justice for women improves when women are not only consumers of justice, but justice providers,” Ms. Khan concluded. “Justice by women produces better justice for women.”

Photo credit: GQUAL