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New report on women's [lack of] access to justice

Tackling the failure of law to protect women - a new report on women's access to justice

Washington, D.C., February 6, 2013 - The law has let women down, says the report Accessing Justice [Download] released today by the International Development Law Organization.

The report says that all the barriers across the "justice chain" -legal, political, social, cultural and economic, whether in the formal or informal legal systems - need to be tackled to meet women's demands for justice.

"Heavy investment in laws and courts by governments, aid actors and multilaterals has had little effect on women's access to justice in poorer countries," says IDLO Director-General Irene Khan.

"India's rape crisis, the persistent trafficking of women and girls around the world, their use as currency for debt settlement in Afghanistan and elsewhere - all prove states' inability to extend to their female citizens the essence of the rule of law: equal protection."

In most of the developing world, women eschew remote, unresponsive or corrupt court systems, settling for village justice instead. In so doing, they expose themselves to ingrained prejudice and further marginalization.

Accessing Justice challenges conventional wisdom of favouring formal justice and shows that informal justice systems can change. Far from being static, custom responds to sensitive intervention and women's empowerment. With adequate strategies in place, tradition can be put to work in women's favor.

The report details gender-focused interventions in both formal and informal legal settings across Africa, Asia and the South Pacific. From unwed motherhood in Morocco to violence against women in Afghanistan, from widows' rights in Rwanda to female land tenure in the Solomon Islands, the emphasis is on a holistic approach centred on women's empowerment. The report recommends legal aid providers teaming up with non-legal service providers such as domestic violence counselling in women's shelters, midwifery services or microcredit schemes.

"What matters is what works. At stake is not the form justice takes: it is that women get justice and are treated equally," says Irene Khan.

"By empowering women to claim their rights, women are better equipped to bring about change in their communities," says Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi in her foreword to the report.

For further information on Accessing Justice visit www.idlo.int/GenderJustice

Cases covered in the report

In Morocco, social stigmatization, criminal repression and legal discrimination marginalize unwed mothers and their children and impact on their ability to obtain official identity papers. Legal rights education and a Court Accompanying Programme helped women to claim their rights but also to navigate the systems and bureaucracies that are often indifferent or intimidating, even hostile.

In Rwanda widows and divorcees struggle to protect their land rights. Legal reform strengthened these rights but in rural areas customary law prevails. Resolving land disputes at the village level, and with mediation by a wide group of stakeholders, including women's interest groups, has widened the scope for women's land claims without significantly modifying customary law.

Violence against women in Afghanistan remains pervasive and deep rooted. While the Afghan Constitution, the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women and international obligations provide a wide range of protections for Afghan women, this is not a reality in practice. Women and justice providers lack awareness of fundamental rights and implementation of domestic law. Training of decision-makers and the establishment of the Attorney General's Violence Against Women Units are turning the trend around enabling women to seek and obtain justice for violent acts committed against them.

Severe gender inequality was inherent in Namibia's systems of customary justice. Installing women as traditional leaders and their active participation in traditional court meetings led to almost complete eradication of 'property grabbing'.

In Papua New Guinea's semiautonomous state of Bougainville, civil conflict left the formal justice system essentially inoperative, and the population continues to rely on customary institutions. Training strengthened the mediation process drawing women in as mediators but the lack of knowledge and change of substantive rights limited the amount of progress that could be made.

In Mozambique and the Tanzania, the current trend of gender discriminatory land and inheritance customary practices make it difficult for divorced and widowed women to access their land rights. Formal laws are more progressive than customary systems but the latter prevail and are accepted by women. Good court decisions and support from civil society have helped show that when laws are fair, courts work and civil society is strong, women want to use formal legal systems.

In India, the state of West Bengal is a major hub for victims of trafficking. While the Indian Constitution explicitly prohibits trafficking of human beings, and domestic legislation addresses many trafficking and related offences, there is a widespread lack of awareness regarding existing protections for trafficking victims. Paralegals worked with lawyers to help girls victims or at risk of trafficking seek prosecutions and enforcement of the law.

In the Solomon Islands the interaction between customary and State legal systems concerning land issues puts control into the hands of a few male leaders and their 'right to speak' in public arenas has effectively given them ownership of the land they speak on behalf of. Women influenced land transactions and court disputes through informal conversations using their traditional knowledge showing that key cultural elements that can be used to help women achieve their legal goals.

Four out of five cases in developing countries are solved by informal courts.

The International Development Law Organization (IDLO) enables governments and empowers people to reform laws and strengthen institutions to promote peace, justice, sustainable development and economic opportunity. IDLO works along the spectrum from nation and peacebuilding to economic recovery in countries emerging from conflict or striving towards democracy. It supports emerging economies and middle-income countries to strengthen their legal capacity and rule of law framework for sustainable development and economic opportunity.

ENDS

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