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59th Session of The Commission on The Status of Women

17 Mar 2015



March 17, 2015
New York
Delivered by Cianna O'Connell
[Check against delivery]

Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen, 

The International Development Law Organization (IDLO), the only intergovernmental organization exclusively devoted to advancing the rule of law, greatly appreciates this opportunity to address the Commission. 
Twenty years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, we celebrate the remarkable progress made on gender equality and women’s empowerment.  But for a vast majority of women and girls, inequality is a daily and persistent reality.  

IDLO knows from its work from around the world that law is an essential tool for advancing gender equality and combatting inequality.  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 the full participation of civil society.  And while strong legal and justice systems can protect and open opportunities for women, inaccessible and discriminatory ones can significantly impede women’s rights and perpetuate discrimination.   

Unfortunately, in many countries, the legal system itself is a tool of oppression. Laws continue to deprive women of equal protection, equal opportunities and equal rights. They subjugate women to their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons.  They restrict their freedoms by dictating, among others, what they can wear, if they should marry, how they should behave and what they can aspire to be.  

Across the world, women are still unable to access and navigate justice institutions through a collusion of political, economic and social factors that cause and reinforce their exclusion.  When women manage to access formal justice institutions, justice providers, in addition to applying discriminatory laws, are often operating within their own personal biases against women. As a result, justice outcomes are rarely fully in line with international standards or constitutional guarantees of equality, and worse do not address the needs of these women.  

Traditional, customary or informal justice systems, by choice or necessity, appear to be the predominant forum for the resolution of women’s justice concerns – most especially those pertaining to inheritance, marriage, personal status, access to and control of land and natural resources, and even gender-based violence.  However, these systems present persistent and significant challenges for women as well.  They often restrict women’s voice in their deliberations, reinforce traditional gender hierarchies, tolerate discriminatory practices, and do not consider as crimes many forms of gender-based violence. In war or peace, the silence surrounding these injustices is deafening. 

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly will adopt a new development agenda, which is expected to include specific goals on gender equality and access to justice. By linking the rule of law with development, the agenda will open up an important pathway for achieving gender equality. 

But how does the rule of law close the gap between the reality of discrimination and the realization of equality? 

As a field-based organization, we found that in addition to adopting new laws and justice structures or amending old ones to bring about gender equality, focusing on women themselves as agents of change is key. 

Women play a big role in bringing about gender equality and their own empowerment. In particular, legal empowerment strategies enable women to bring about the change they want to see.  In many places, women do not know their rights nor how to claim them. Legal empowerment strategies – including legal awareness, legal education, court accompanying procedures – do not only increase women’s legal literacy, but also can enhance women’s access to justice and improve the quality of justice that they receive. 

We also found that the effective participation of women – as judges, lawyers, prosecutors – significantly improves women’s access to justice. Justice by women often produces better justice for women, not because women are more just than men, but because in many societies around the world, women are more likely to report sensitive matters, for instance sexual assault and domestic violence, to a woman justice actor.  This is particularly the case in countries where women’s social mobility is limited and interaction with non-family males is forbidden or discouraged.  Ensuring that women are on the frontlines of the delivery of justice, whether in the judiciary, in police stations, or in village courts, helps women access justice and in turn access a full range of rights and resources. 

When women are not able to participate fully on matters that affect their lives, when opportunities systematically exclude many on the basis of gender and privilege, when laws continue to nullify women’s rights and power, and when justice and accountability systems do not protect or promote the needs of women, we will not be able to eradicate poverty, promote sustainable development or create inclusive and just societies. 

Unless women’s rights and empowerment are secured through the rule of law, we will fail, not only in prioritizing women’s needs, but also in making development work for half of our population, and ultimately for all. 

Thank you. 


The International Development Law Organization (IDLO) enables government and empowers people to reform laws and strengthen institutions to promote peace, justice, sustainable development and economic opportunity.