Today on International Women’s Day the world looks to celebrate the achievements of women and advances made towards the realization of women’s human rights but the day is also an opportunity to address the issues that continue to disadvantage women.
In the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights many women around the world have seen States failing to live up to their obligations to ensure that they are able to exercise their human rights.
Where women’s human rights are violated many women face discrimination, denial of equal protection of the law and other impediments in accessing the justice that they deserve.
“The ICJ has a strong commitment to addressing the obstacles women face in accessing justice,” said ICJ Acting Vice-President, Justice Radmila Dragicevic-Dicic.
“The judiciary has an important role in protecting the rights of women, but in many States there is a lack of proper awareness and understanding of issues such as gender based-violence. Many judges would benefit from judicial education on specific gender-based issues to ensure that women victims are made visible and their rights protected by domestic laws and relevant international standards,” she added.
For several years the ICJ has worked on women’s access to justice issues in different countries in all regions with a variety of stakeholders, including human rights defenders, lawyers, judges, governmental authorities and international rights experts and mechanisms.
For example, in Tunisia, the ICJ issued a memorandum calling on authorities to remove the obstacles women face in accessing justice.
The ICJ has held regional dialogues in Africa and Asia with judges and lawyers.
In Asia, one outcome of this was The Bangkok General Guidance for Judges in Applying a Gender Perspective, designed to assist judges in employing a gender perspective in deciding cases before them, which has since been adopted for use by judiciaries in Indonesia and the Philippines.
In Africa, the need for gendered perspectives in judicial decision-making was also raised in a regional report evaluating sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) and fair trial rights.
The ICJ has undertaken substantial work on women’s access to justice in the context of SGBV, including a report calling for an eradication of harmful gender stereotypes and assumptions and a Practitioners’ Guide on Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence.
Both have been used as training tools in Asia, Africa and MENA, most recently at a workshop on SGBV in Swaziland.
Last year the ICJ released a memorandum on effective investigation and prosecution of SGBV in Morocco.
The ICJ has also undertaken trial observations during hearings in the landmark Sepur Zarco case, the first case that resulted in a conviction for sexual crimes that had occurred during Guatemala’s internal conflict in the early 1980s.
The ICJ regularly engages with the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women to highlight issues around women’s access to justice and call on the international community to be vigilant in upholding women’s rights protections.
“The ICJ is lucky to count among its number some very impressive women human rights defenders, who bring a great deal of expertise to the work of the organization,” said Dragicevic-Dicic.
“The five most recent additions to the ICJ have further strengthened the organization’s ability to speak authoritatively on women’s rights, and I look forward to working with my new colleagues to enhance women’s access to justice,” she added.
The new additions to the ICJ include Dame Silvia Cartwright, Former Governor of New Zealand; Professor Sarah Cleveland, Constitutional and Human Rights Professor at Columbia Law School in the USA; Justice Martine Comte who has over 30 years judicial experience in France; Mikiko Otani, member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from Japan; and Justice Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza from the Supreme Court of Uganda.
In an interview with the ICJ, Commissioner Justice Elizabeth Evatt, a distinguished Australian lawyer, jurist and trailblazer for women in the legal profession in her country, spoke about the importance of women being able to access justice.
One of the architects of Australia’s Family Law Act of 1975, Justic Evatt told the ICJ how the Act made divorce more accessible and abolished the Common Law relics that gave men greater rights over women, however new problems have emerged since then.
Justice Evatt explained that “(the Act) was an extremely important reform for women. It made it far easier for men and women to access divorce and have their matters dealt with because the court had conciliation and counselling services and also legal aid was more readily available. But I am afraid that since those days, thing have changed. The Family Court is now beset with delays and obstacles and it is impossible for people to get legal aid. People have to take their case on their own or face huge legal costs, so having begun well, it hasn’t continued well. More resources are needed.”
Justice Evatt also considers that there is a need for the government and the judiciary to take more action to address domestic violence.
However, she noted, “there has been a change over the years with a growing awareness of both the police and the local courts, which are the main ones dealing with violence. They have become far more aware of the need to take action to protect women and prevent violence but the cure for domestic violence does not lie just with the courts but also with the whole of society.”
Watch the interview: