UN Women’s first report

// 6 July 2011

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scales of justice.jpgToday UN Women launched Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, its first major report since its doors opened at the start of this year.

The report is part of a series that UNIFEM used to publish biannually(ish) examining the status of women around the world through the lens of a different issue each report. Previous reports covered political accountability, work and poverty, war and peace, and women’s economic lives.

This year’s report is just as impressive as the previous ones, tracking the change that has been achieved, but focusing on the gaps in legislation, as well as in practice, that mean millions of women still don’t enjoy basic justice around the world.

Did you know that 139 countries and territories now ‘guarantee’ equality between women and men in their constitutions, whereas 100 years ago, women were allowed to vote in only two countries?

The whole report is of course worth reading. I was particularly interested in two bits: the section on ten groundbreaking court cases that have changed women’s lives, and the analysis of how the basis of most rule of law has a male bias at its core.

On the second topic, the report discusses how laws and legal and justice systems tend to reinforce the interests of those in power. It explains how men’s privilege – and it uses the word privilege – are particularly strengthened at women’s expense throughout the legal process, from the creation of laws and legal frameworks, through to interpretations and implementation, and including legal systems and services. It states:

In all societies, women are less powerful than men and the two areas in which women’s rights are least protected, where the rule of law is weakest and men’s privilege is often most entrenched, are first, women’s rights in the private and domestic sphere, including their rights to live free from violence and to make decisions about their sexuality, on marriage, divorce and reproductive health; and second, women’s economic rights, including the right to decent work and the right to inherit and control land and other productive resources.

The report also discusses the challenge of parallel or multiple legal systems, where more than one legal system operates. This has been an issue of some debate here in the UK (think ‘Shariah courts’) and is, according to the report, the reality in most countries in the world. This is an issue I’ve written about elsewhere (for Minority Rights Group International (pdf), for example), and the report takes a similar stand as I have arguing that governments cannot abdicate their responsibilities for ensuring all women have access to justice, even where informal or parallel justice systems are operating.

One area that the report doesn’t explicitly address but which is relevant for us here in the UK is how race and religion also influences minority women’s access to justice in mainstream legal systems. (The report does examine religious legal systems and what that means for women’s rights.) I’m thinking in particular about how violence against Muslim women in the UK is sometimes treated as related to a women’s ‘Muslimness’, rather than to sexism. By framing gender-based violence against Muslim women as a ‘cultural’ problem (think forced marriage and so-called honour crimes), rather than a problem of male abuses of power, failures of police forces to protect Muslim women, for example, are allowed to be treated as cross-cultural misunderstandings, rather than the structural challenges that they actually are. (I wrote about this (pdf) in a bit more detail for the June 2008 issue of Runnymede’s Bulletin.)

In order to address some of the challenges outlined in the report and ensure that women can actually have a chance at accessing justice, UN Women recommends governments:

  • Repeal laws that discriminate against women, and ensure that legislation protects women from violence and inequality in the home and the workplace.
  • Support innovative justice services, including one-stop shops, legal aid and specialized courts, to ensure women can access the justice to which they are entitled.
  • Put women on the frontline of justice delivery. As police, judges, legislators and activists, women in every region are making a difference and bringing about change.
  • Invest in justice systems that can respond to women’s needs. Donors spend US$4.2 billion annually on aid for justice reform, but only five percent of this spending targets women and girls.

The full report is available here (pdf), and the executive summary here (pdf).

Picture of gold scales of justice, by vaXzine, shared under a Creative Commons license

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