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UN Women “Progress of the World’s Women” report; In pursuit of justice

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Emine Dilek
WVoN co-editor

UN Women- the agency set up at the beginning of this year to fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment – published its first report on Wednesday in New York and London, titled “In Pursuit of Justice.”

Panelists at the New York event included: Executive Director Michelle Bachelet; Unity Dow, Botswana’s first female High Court Judge; lead counsel in the landmark Novartis equal pay case David Sanford; and report lead author Lara Turquet.

The first question by the moderator, award winning journalist and former US District Court Judge Catherine Crier, stumped even this panel – “Tell us what justice means to you in three words?”

The short answer was something like this: “rule of law”, “equality”, “reparation”, “open process”, “healing”, “fairness”, “having rights”, “being heard” and “good governance”.

In terms of the report itself, Ms Bachelet said that where laws and the justice system work well, women have a mechanism by which to advance. Unfortunately, despite widespread guarantees of equality in the constitutions of many countries, millions of women still have no access to justice.

Law experts – Unity Dow and David Stanford – condemned discriminatory citizenship laws which, they said, are always incompatible with constitutional guarantees of equality.  Legal challenges can change not just the lives of women, but everyone in that society benefits from a more just system.

For example, Unity Dow challenged a law in Botswana prohibiting women married to foreign men from passing the rights and privileges of citizenship to their children. She won the case which extended legal protection not just to women, but also their children.

But even developed countries with formal justice systems make mistakes. David Stanford made no secret of his disappointment with the recent US supreme court decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart discrimination case which has denied women employed by Wal-Mart the right to pursue a sex discrimination class action case against their employer (see WVoN coverage).

There was also lots of discussion about the barriers that women face when accessing justice, problems within the chain of justice, legal pluralism issues and post conflict justice for women.

Ending explicit discrimination against women means not just removing the laws that discriminate against women but also extending its protection to ensure that governments take responsibility for how the law impacts on different groups.

Barriers to justice include (but are not limited to) a lack of faith in the system; not having enough autonomy in household decisions; the cost of retaining an attorney; courts located in inaccessible places and language barriers, especially for indigenous women.

Generally, the justice chain is complex and difficult to navigate for women. Steering a case through a criminal justice system can be costly, time consuming and demoralizing. An unresponsive system, social barriers that discourage women from coming forward and massive costs often result in injustice for women.

Non-state legal systems such as customary and religious systems create barriers to women’s access to justice. Legal pluralism is common in many countries in different forms.

Most of these systems are inherently biased against women. Customary or religious systems do not have injunctions against gender based violence and most contain unequal provisions for women and men.

During armed conflict women and children suffer the most. They are more likely to be abducted, displaced and raped. Post-conflict justice is not only about punishing the perpetrators but also about rebuilding lives, ensuring reparations to victims.

Increasing prosecution, promoting gender-sensitive truth commissions and transformative reparations can ensure that women obtain justice after their horrendous experiences.

Institutional change, gender responsive policies, specialist courts and more women in judicial systems are needed to make the justice chain work better for women.

The following  are the ten recommendations in the report which are needed, says UN Women, to make that happen:

  1. Support women’s legal organizations
  2. Support one-stop shops and specialized services to reduce attrition in the justice chain
  3. Implement gender-sensitive law reform
  4. Use quotas to boost the number of women legislators
  5. Put women on the front line of law enforcement
  6. Train judges and monitor decisions
  7. Increase women’s access to courts and truth commissions during and after conflict
  8. Implement gender-responsive reparations programmes
  9. Invest in women’s access to justice
  10. Put gender equality at the heart of Millennium Development Goals

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