Women profiles: Leila Zerrougui

Honorary ICJ Member Leila Zerrougui speaks about the obstacles in accessing justice that women face, particularly in conflict settings, in the latest ICJ profile on women human rights defenders.

Professor Leila Zerrougui is an Algerian legal expert on human rights and administration of justice. She has served as a juvenile judge, judge of first instance, appeals court judge and was appointed to the Algerian Supreme Court.

She was the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Deputy Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) where, from 2008, she spearheaded the Mission’s efforts in strengthening the rule of law and protection of civilians. From 2012 to 2017 she served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

Prof. Zerrougui explained that she was part of a first generation of women who had access to education in her country and that the opportunity to study law helped her to understand rights, how to exercise these and how to protect them.

When she started as a juvenile judge, the family code was very unjust for women, and she was motivated to try and fix these injustices.

Although confronted by occasional misogyny, Prof. Zerrougui considered that in some ways her gender enabled her to enjoy more opportunities when she started her career as there were so few female judges and male peers felt less threatened by her.

Prof Zerrougui said that throughout her career she has been supported by many men, but emphasized that it is important that men understand that gender issues are about the relationships between men and women and that it is in everyone’s best interests to promote gender equality in all aspects of life.

Among the many obstacles facing women in accessing justice, she cited administrative blockages, lack of knowledge about legal procedures, lack of financial means and family pressures and interference. Women without access to education or other public spaces, particularly those whose families do not support them, are totally disempowered.

Prof. Zerrougui said that as a judge she observed many cases were thrown out because those filing cases didn’t understand the legal procedures that were involved. She therefore decided to spend two hours every week taking part in a TV programme to explain these procedures to citizens in a way that they could access and understand.

Prof. Zerrougui has worked in many conflict settings and is known for her innovative methods. She said: “In many conflict settings, you don’t have justice. So it is not about how can you access justice, the system is not there.” Prof. Zerrougui went on to explain that in these settings it is first necessary to take justice to where the victims are.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Prof. Zerrougui established mobile criminal justice courts, with an investigator, prosecutor and a mobile court and a prison in every Province. It was the first stage to bring justice to remote areas, and to allow the victim to face the perpetrators, sometimes high ranking military.

In this context, she explained how rewarding it was to see a colonel taken to the village where he and his solders had raped women and to face justice there. His victims were able to participate in the process and see him face justice and receive his sentence. The decision was then made to detain the perpetrator in a different area, where he would not have the influence to arrange his release.

Prof. Zerrougui explained that children are often victims of conflicts they have not instigated but, despite sometimes constituting as much as 50 or 70 per cent of the overall population in conflict zones, are frequently forgotten and left without a voice.

In her role as UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, she was involved with the Colombia peace process and the first agreement signed there was about releasing children and reintegrating them into their family or society rather than seeking punishment. However, she explained it is also vital to ensure that perpetrators of abuses against children are punished.

Prof. Zerrougui encouraged more young women to think about working in human rights and said: “just choose the space when you have the opportunity to get it, don’t think about all the obstacles, it’s good to know them but not stop at that, and you will achieve results, the recognition will come.”

She added that this work is important, “because without human rights defenders, without people that dedicate their lives, their careers, to defend the most vulnerable, the voiceless, then the world becomes a jungle.”

Watch the interview:

The series of profiles introducing the work of ICJ Commissioners and Honorary Members on women’s rights was launched on 25 November 2016 to coincide with the International Day to Eliminate Violence against Women and the first day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.

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