European & International News

Women’s Access To Justice: Addressing Justice Chain Barriers

[AWID, 04 November 2011] The 2011-2012 UN Women Report “Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice” analyzes women’s access to justice, from legal frameworks to justice for women during and after conflict.

Women often face barriers in accessing justice. Their multiple productive and reproductive roles mean that they often do not have enough time to spare to pursue their cases and so simply give up. Women may not have the resources needed to pursue justice or lack awareness of the legal options available to them. Sometimes, they face social disapproval for pursuing justice particularly in cases of domestic or sexual violence.

AWID spoke with Prof. Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership about the report.

By Kathambi Kinoti

AWID: UN Women (and UNIFEM previously) produces a periodic status report on the situation of women. What is the significance of this annual report and in particular this year’s theme “In Pursuit of Justice?”

Charlotte Bunch (CB): The report brings worldwide attention and legitimacy to some of the claims that women’s rights movements have been making. It gives us a tool to back up our advocacy efforts and demand that governments pay attention to women’s rights issues.

This year’s report is particularly good because it focuses on a question we have been raising: Despite all the information and knowledge that we have, why is there such a gap in implementation of women’s rights? Instead of a technocratic approach to the issues, it is important to find practical ways to reach women with information and services, and in that way enable them to enter the justice chain. For instance some years ago, one strategy used in the U.S. to educate women about HIV and AIDS was to make information available in beauty shops.

AWID: The Report confirms that women are far more likely to report incidents of robbery than of sexual violence, yet rape is more common than robbery. In Egypt, for instance, more than 40% of women have been sexually assaulted and fewer than 10% are likely to report it. Fewer than 10% have been victims of robbery, and they are far more likely to report it. Why?

CB: Robbery does not have the negative moral association that sexual violence does, and so survivors are not re-victimized or ashamed to report. In many places, sex and sexuality is seen as something shameful. Even in countries where a lot of progress has been made in addressing violence against women, rape survivors often think that they did something wrong to bring the violence upon themselves. They “went out when they should not have” or “walked on the wrong side of the street,” or “dressed too provocatively.”

The report shows that the system perpetuates the stigma; women are re-victimized by justice processes. Meagre resources are allocated to collecting and processing forensic evidence. In the rape kit scandal[i] budget cuts relegated processing rape kits to a non-priority issue because “most women don’t pursue rape charges.” The situation is worse for women who are not aware of their rights.

AWID: The report suggests a number of strategies to address the under-reporting and attrition rates such as one-stop centres and women-only police stations. What should be the topmost priorities in addressing these issues?

CB: The priorities depend on the context. I strongly affirm one-stop centres that make it easier for women to find out what they can do. In some countries women-only police stations have turned out to be successful; in others they have been under-resourced and regarded as less important than regular police stations.

We need to think creatively about location: what is the best place for women to access services? One-stop centres can be incorporated within state health care centres where women can get all the information that they need. It may be strategic to locate them in the same place as children’s clinics because women tend to take greater care of their children than of themselves. So while they take their babies for immunization they have access to information about where to go for help for domestic violence, or what evidence is necessary to preserve in sexual violence cases.

Women need to have one place to go for whatever gender-based problems they experience. Then they will be more likely to make use of the available services. They are often held back by their home and child-care duties, and the reluctance to be seen reporting their cases. Having several different steps along the justice chain in different locations makes it even more difficult for women.

AWID: The report shows that women are grossly underrepresented in justice systems especially police services. Sexual violence survivors are often more at ease reporting their cases to women police officers. Why is the case and why are women so under represented in the courts, prosecutorial and police services?

CB: Given the stigma surrounding sexual violence, women assume that female police officers will believe them, and that men might ridicule them or not take them seriously.

The under-representation can be attributed to gender stereotypes and patriarchal representations of authority. The police represent authority and are associated with physical control and restraint. More women now work in the public sphere, but many people do not associate them with this role.

Feminists often see justice systems as abusive to women so have tended not to advocate for the recruitment of women into these systems. But they are essential services and there needs to be greater recruitment of women to change the culture of abuse and corruption in them.

AWID: CEDAW has been in existence for 32 years and most countries have ratified it. It binds state parties to ensure women’s access to justice. Why have the Convention and its related processes not made swifter progress in ensuring women’s access to justice?

CB: CEDAW has been as effective as any other human rights convention, which is to say that conventions are fundamentally about setting standards and putting political pressure on governments. Although it is legally binding it is often not enforceable. Its success depends on countries’ commitment to the issue and to how much they care about their reputation in the international community. It is a very important tool that helps expose what needs to be done, but it cannot make it happen if a government does not care to.

Progress on the implementation of CEDAW has been impeded firstly, because many governments simply do not care, and secondly because it deals with very broad cultural and social issues and attitudes as opposed, say, to the Convention Against Torture, which is more broadly accepted cross-culturally. Social change is slow and is not always linear. For instance, successive political regime changes within a country can auger well or poorly for women’s rights.

Chapter 1 of this report highlights cases that have been won on the basis of CEDAW. This illustrates its role as a tool that women can use for change.

AWID: UN Women’s founding in January 2011 was greeted with great expectations from women’s rights advocates. In what ways do you think that its enhanced status should facilitate improved access to justice?

CB: The first six months of UN Women’s existence was spent creating its structure out of the existing units it replaced within the UN bureaucracy. It is only now beginning to move to the country level and more programming.

At the global level UN Women now has a greater voice and can speak at higher levels than women could before. We hope to see it have a greater voice at regional and country office levels soon. In the next 1-2 years civil cociety must monitor the development of systematic country plans, so that it is on par with other UN agencies in the country offices.

AWID: Do you see any gaps in the report?

CB: The report identifies the barriers that women face and makes many good recommendations, but stops short of a stronger analysis of the role of social and economic power and control in restricting women’s access to justice. It is often said: “The laws have changed; why don’t women report violations?” as if it is about women having backward attitudes, not the barriers to this happening.

The report recommends greater support for women’s legal organizations, but does not name women’s movements as a political force for changing attitudes and systems. This is connected to its silence around naming power and control.

Otherwise, it is one of the best reports I have seen from the UN. It is clear and accessible and employs useful graphics such as charts. It is an excellent resource for discussion with governments on improving women’s access to justice, and what barriers remain even when good measures have been introduced. When women-only police stations were introduced in Brazil, they were seen as a good idea. It later turned out that they were regarded as secondary, and female officers working in them often found it hard to get promoted or be taken seriously as these were not seen as ‘real’ police stations. Steps then had to be taken to remedy this problem.

The impact of the report will depend on how UN agencies, governments, women’s rights organizations and movements use it as a tool for improving women’s access to justice.

Have your say

What barriers do women in your country face in accessing justice? What strategies have been implemented to overcome these barriers?

Share your thoughts/ideas in the comments box below.

[i] When a woman is subjected to rape there is a set of physical evidence that can provide proof of the crime. In the United States for several years, this evidence was not routinely collected and used in rape trials.

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