Overdue justice

The next Progress of the World's Women, UNIFEM's flagship biennial report, will be on Access to Justice. I went along to their CSW session to hear their solutions for justice systems that are not working for women.
zohra moosa
3 March 2010
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UNIFEM’s next flagship Progress of the World’s Women report, to be published later this year, will be on Access to Justice. Yesterday I went to their session (pdf) on the topic to hear about the issues.

Laura Turquet, manager of Progress, introduced the topic by outlining the three themes the report hopes to cover: impunity, plural legal systems and transforming legal systems. As she explained, ‘impunity means that individuals and organizations are, on a systemic level, “getting away with it”.’ Plural legal systems refers to the reality that in most, if not all, countries, there is ‘more than one legal system in operation’, such as customary versus civil law for example. Transforming legal systems is about recognizing that while women need to be able to access justice systems, by making them more affordable for example, justice systems themselves also need to be reformed to better meet women’s needs.

Joan Winship, Executive Director of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), spoke about the importance of having women involved in justice systems, arguing that courts should reflect the populations of the countries they’re in. Joan also highlighted how having laws on women’s rights doesn’t necessarily mean women are better off. Women have to be able to access the court systems to claim their rights, for example. And judges need to be trained to know how they should be upholding the laws. She cited examples of what a difference it has made for judges to be trained in the links between CEDAW and the constitutions of their countries.

Shanthi Dairiam, Founding Member and former Executive Director of International Women’s Right Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW) and member of the CEDAW Committee from 2005-8 spoke about how ‘law’ cannot be assumed to be inherently just. Instead she argued that we should remain aware that law is super-imposed onto unequal contexts. As a result it ‘privileges those that are socially dominant’ whether at the personal or the public level. Because there are ‘many aspects of human relationships that the law doesn’t touch’, law allows social hierarchies to continue and guide the law. Law assumes that everyone is autonomous and equally free to make their own choices, which is not the case. This ‘neutrality in the law can become discriminatory in certain cases’ because women have different capacities to access and enjoy rights.

The discussion that followed was quite focused and really very interesting.

A woman named Cecilia from an organization in Brazil called Observe spoke about how they are monitoring the implementation of their new domestic violence law including how judges and the police are responding. She felt that ‘if we don’t have a strong feminist movement demanding implementation of the law, it doesn’t happen’.

Renee from an organization in Southern Africa talked about a pilot in Zambia of a one-stop shop for survivors of gender-based violence where women can come to receive medical aid, counselling and support from a trained police officer all in one place. The centre is linked to the judicial system with trained personnel on hand to help ensure that women who want to, can pursue legal remedies with the psychological and other support they need on hand.

Maria from Macedonia pointed out that law that is created by ‘experts’, out of the context of people’s lives and without developing the proper implementation infrastructure at the same time to ensure it works – for example making sure judges know how to apply the law – is no good as law. As she said, ‘Access to justice is not just about [the existence of] law, but about an entire system.’

A woman who had worked in Rwanda spoke about how important it is to maintain a holistic view of what justice means. She asked ‘what is the woman’s perception of justice?’ and argued that decisions about what mechanisms are needed to deliver justice should be built on the answers to this question. Some women may want compensation, others practical health interventions, and so on.

I raised a point about delivering justice to girls who are survivors of violence, which is an issue we work on at ActionAid as part of our violence against girls in schools programme. We know that sometimes parents will collude with perpetrators of violence for financial or social reasons when their daughters have been attacked. In these cases, where girls are minors and would usually be relying on their parents for support, how can we ensure girls have access to the justice they deserve?

It really was a fascinating discussion and I am looking forward to the Progress report being published. It seems to me, however, that it is no big surprise that a male-dominated system, namely the justice system, is producing male-biased law and outcomes. While more than one person remarked on the importance of having women in the system, including Joan Winship, no one discussed what should be done about the lack of parity (at best) and the severe and shocking under-representation of women (more frankly). At stake is women’s lives – women are being battered and brutalized with very little recourse to justice and in the context of widespread impunity and indeed laws that deny the violence (e.g. allowing marital rape) or legal practice that amounts to the same (e.g. husbands being able to argue that it is their right under customary law to abuse their wives). Are not more radical propositions for fairness under the law now overdue?

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