Flagship report from the new UN agency shows there is a way to go before improvements in the legal position of women are translated into equality and justice for all
More than half of working women in the world, 600 million, are trapped in insecure jobs without legal protection, according to the first flagship report of the new agency UN Women. A similar number do not have even basic protection against domestic violence, it finds, while sexual assault has become a hallmark of modern conflict.
Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, said the document showed that many millions of women had no access to justice.
“The report reminds us of the remarkable advances that have been made over the past century in the quest for gender equality and women’s empowerment,” she said. “However it also underscores the fact that despite widespread guarantees of equality, the reality for many millions of women is that justice remains out of reach.”
For millions of women in both rich and poor countries, the search for justice is fraught with difficulty and is often expensive; laws and legal systems frequently discriminate against them. In Cambodia, for example, the forensic test necessary to lay a rape charge costs two weeks’ wages, while in Kenya a land claim in an inheritance case can cost $800 and extend across 17 different administrative stages.
Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice is a comprehensive survey of women’s access to justice across the globe. The report offers 10 recommendations to overcome the paradox that while huge improvements have been made in the legal position of women over the last century, there is still a dramatic lag in translating that into equality and justice.
For example, 127 countries do not have effective laws on marital rape, and attrition rates in cases brought by women are high, ensuring that only a fraction of reported rapes result in conviction. The report cites one 2009 European study which found that, on average, only 14% of reported rapes ended in a conviction.
The first of the 10 recommendations is providing support for women’s legal organisations, which often step into the gaps left by inadequate legal aid systems. In a number of countries, women’s groups have been at the forefront of cases that have led to laws being repealed, or new laws created, with a positive impact on women’s lives. In Nepal, for example, the supreme court ordered parliament to amend the rape law in 2002 to allow prosecutions for marital rape after a case brought by the Forum for Women, Law and Development. In Indonesia, a local NGO has trained community-based paralegals to support women to use the religious courts to get the marriage and divorce certificates they need to claim benefits.
Other recommendations include further legal reform to ensure paid maternity leave, equal pay and equal property rights, support for the development of one-stop services to deal with crimes such as rape, and an increase in the recruitment of women into the police force.
The report highlights best practice around the world, arguing that change can be achieved with innovative policy. Nepal, for instance, has trebled female land ownership in the last decade by offering tax exemptions to drive the adoption of new inheritance laws. In Sweden, the introduction of “daddy leave” – reserved time off for fathers – has helped narrow the pay gap. And in South Africa, the Thuthuzela care centres, which bring together police, health staff and legal advice, have driven up conviction rates to 89% from a national average of 7%.
The report offers a clear indication of some of the areas that UN Women, which started work in January under the leadership of the former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, is keen to prioritise in its work. But the new agency is struggling to raise the funding it needs. Only US$88m has been pledged against a target of $500m. The UK has yet to announce its pledge. Pressure groups are warning that the funding shortfall is jeopardising the success of the agency.
Gender has now been identified as a priority issue by many donor agencies, but the report points out how little funding has gone into strengthening women’s legal rights. Of the $874bn spent by the World Bank in the last 10 years, $126bn went into public administration, law and justice systems, but only $7.3m went into programmes aimed at gender equality – 0.001% of the total budget. Access to justice underlies every aspect of women’s lives, not least their access to land and education, and now that gender has been designated as one of four priority areas for the World Bank up to 2014, there is a real need to invest in improving justice for women.
Other recommendations in the report include better training for judges to challenge the notion that women’s behaviour may contribute to rape, and using quotas to increase the number of female legislators. Of the 28 countries that have more than 30% female representation in parliament, 23 have used quotas. Looking in detail at six of those countries, there was a clear link between increased female representation and the passage of laws to strengthen women’s rights.
Given how sexual violence is used in conflict, the report says more effort needs to be made to increase women’s access to the courts and truth commissions during and after conflict. The report recognises that significant advances in international law in the past two decades have made it possible to prosecute sexual violence crimes. But international courts now need to prioritise gender-based crimes in prosecution strategies.
Women have a crucial role to play in peacebuilding, but the report argues that more attention needs to be paid to women’s access to post-conflict justice mechanisms, such as reparations. It points to the example in Sierra Leone, where a reparations programme is helping female survivors of sexual violence, providing small loans and skills training to set up small businesses.
The organisation VSO described the report as a “wake-up call” to world leaders who are not providing equal rights to women. “In many countries there are still too many gaps in the law, which leave women without adequate protection. For others, the laws are barely worth the paper they are written on because implementation is so weak, or justice systems actively discourage women from using them,” said Kathy Peach, head of external affairs at VSO UK.
“This report clearly highlights that too much aid is still gender blind. How can it be that out of $126bn that the World Bank spent on improving public administration, law and justice, just $7.3m went to make sure that women had access to these vital services too?”