International Development Law Organization

Women Judges at the Forefront of Justice for Survivors of Gender-based Violence in East Africa

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Rome, Italy
8 March 2023

Across their lifetime, approximately 1 in 3 women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner. But only 40 per cent of victims report these crimes or seek help of any sort. Fewer still make it to the courts.

“Normally, the complaint that victims have is that the cases are hurried through, they are treated as numbers in the system, and nobody follows up to find out if they have received psychosocial support, or any medical treatment for the physical, mental and emotional injuries they suffered as a result of the crimes committed against them,” says Justice Susan Okalany, judge of the High Court of Uganda’s International Crimes Division. “And because of that, people are apprehensive about reporting cases.”

Women judges play a vital role in bringing about the much-needed change. The United Nations General Assembly recognized this in 2021 with the declaration of 10 March as the International Day of Women Judges, an annual reminder of both progress and challenges, and a call to continue promoting the full and equal participation of women at all levels of the judiciary.

When it comes to gender-based violence, women on the bench have made ground-breaking decisions that have transformed the way justice systems treat cases of rape, other forms of sexual violence and forced marriage.

We also know that in cases of assault or intimate partner violence, women seeking justice are often more comfortable dealing with women judges, women court officials, women prosecutors and lawyers. And this is key to ensuring a victim/survivor-centred approach.

Though there has been a global rise in women’s representation in judicial institutions, the highest positions remain out of reach for most women, with the World Bank reporting that just 31 economies worldwide have a woman Chief Justice. The Africa region has seen eight female Chief Justices and Presidents of Constitutional Courts, yet with several African countries having no women judges in their highest courts, there is still much to be done.

Increasing women in judicial leadership was one of the issues addressed at the 17th International Association of Women Judges Africa Regional Conference, hosted by the National Association of Women Judges in Uganda, in partnership with the Judiciary of Uganda, the International Association of Women Judges(IAWJ), the Austrian Development Agency, and the Civil Aviation Authority Uganda, with the support of IDLO and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The event brought together some 300 women judges from across East and Central Africa in Kampala, Uganda, from 25 - 29 October 2022, to discuss the role of women judges in breaking barriers to equal justice and strengthening institutions.

Group of people at the symposium

The result was the adoption of a Declaration, committing to:

  • enhancing women’s representation in judicial leadership
  • adopting victim and child friendly practices
  • mainstreaming disability and health rights in the justice system
  • promoting youth-centered justice
  • protecting the rights of migrant workers.

Known as the Kampala Declaration, the document, which is currently being finalized for publication, also includes critical resolutions on addressing the needs of victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Many of these, including enhancing the capacity of informal justice structures, instituting mechanisms such as specialized SGBV courts, and training and engaging with community paralegal and legal aid clinics, are areas in which IDLO is actively engaged.

IDLO’s work with women judges

As the only global intergovernmental organization exclusively devoted to promoting the rule of law, IDLO supports women’s participation and leadership in the justice sector as a key Objective of our Strategic Plan.

“Ensuring women’s active participation in shaping justice systems – not just as justice seekers, but also as policy-makers, decision-makers, implementers and adjudicators – is critical to strengthening trust and confidence in the justice system and advancing gender equality,” says IDLO Director-General, Jan Beagle. “Women judges bring a diversity of experience and signal the importance of inclusion, representation and fairness to justice delivery.”

IDLO and the International Association of Women Judges have been long-standing partners in pushing for gender parity in the judiciary. We also work with the IAWJ – Uganda Chapter to build capacities on gender-responsive adjudication, including issues related to gender-based violence.

Recently, IDLO supported an Assessment of Justice Delivery for Victims of Defilement in Uganda, which included group interviews with key informants (including victim/survivors), and informed a research report, which was launched in October 2021 by the Chief Justice of Uganda and has been disseminated within the judiciary.

“We said, ‘Why are there so many cases?’, ‘Why is this vice continuing, and yet the law is in place? What is the problem?’ So, we targeted the justice actors, [asking] ‘Is there something that we are not doing right in that field?’,” says Wolayo. “Building on that, we developed a manual on gender-responsive adjudication…to skill judicial officers…in gender justice how to adjudicate these disputes, and be alive to the challenges and the barriers women face when they come to court.”


Taking a victim-centred approach

Understanding the challenges confronting survivors of gender-based violence as they seek justice is essential to ensuring a victim and child-friendly environment.

The Kampala Declaration aims to address this, in part by committing to address gender-based violence through continuous training of justice sector actors, such as police, prosecution and judicial officers. This includes training on handling vulnerable witnesses and understanding the nuances of online sexual and gender-based violence.

“Each and every police officer worth his salt, must be trained to gender sensitive, victim-centred, trauma-informed service delivery. That is where it all begins; it’s made and broken at the police station,” says Justice Susan Okalany. “Whoever has not had the chance to be trained at the police training school must get that training from wherever they are. And that is a possibility; that every police officer has the basic skills on how to handle victims of sexual and gender-based violence.”

A victim-centred approach has many dimensions, infrastructure being one. It is of utmost importance that courthouses provide women and child-friendly waiting rooms, and make sure that victims have their own space and are not in direct contact with the perpetrator.

According to Justice Okalany, it is equally important to establish working relationships with local councils and traditional leaders and communities, to document and address harmful cultural practices, such as child marriage, which can often be used as a coping mechanism for families affected by economic turmoil and conflict.

In its work to reduce the justice gap for women and girls, with a focus on improving access to justice for survivors of gender-based violence, IDLO continues to support the advancement of women judges, other justice professionals, and the implementation of the recommendations outlined in the Kampala Declaration.

As Justice Wolayo explains, “We want to see fairness and equity, and it’s good to have many women on board with that kind of mindset. And once they are also skilled in the process of gender justice adjudication, then we shall create, at the end of it, a culture of gender justice.”