58th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women
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Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
As Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, the only inter-governmental organization exclusively devoted to advancing the rule of law, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to address the Commission.
As we take stock of the Millennium Development Goals and work to shape the post-2015 development agenda, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made on girls’ education, women’s health and political participation. But it is equally important to be honest that the MDGs barely scratched the surface of deep-seated gender inequalities.
Too many girls drop out of school, too many women die in childbirth, too many women toil at the bottom of the employment ladder in poorly paid, precarious jobs, too few have any say in how they live their lives. Gender discrimination is widespread, inequality is rampant, violence against women persists as a scar on the face of humanity.
There are many reasons for that – cultural, social, political, economic and attitudinal. As an organization devoted to advancing the rule of law, allow me to focus on the legal barriers that are holding women back.
Equality – that we are all equal in the eyes of the law, equally protected by the law and equally accountable to it – is a core principle of the rule of law. It includes respect for human rights - both economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. Properly understood, the rule of law provides substantive justice as well as due process.
IDLO knows from its work around the world that the rule of law can play a crucial role in closing the gap between the promise of development and the reality of deprivation and discrimination. Good laws and regulations, fairly administered by responsive and accountable institutions, can transform societies, especially when such measures are accompanied by the legal empowerment of citizens and full participation of civil society.
Unfortunately in many countries women do not benefit from the rule of law but from rule by law, according to which the legal system itself becomes a tool of oppression.
In far too many countries the police, courts and the authorities turn a blind eye to gender-based violence. The law denies women equal protection and equal opportunity. It subjugates women to their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons, restricts their rights and freedoms, including such fundamental issues as what they can own or might inherit, whom they might marry or divorce, their relations with their young children, what control they have over their own bodies, even what they can wear or not.
Even where the law provides a just remedy, it is often difficult for women to seek justice because the legal system is too expensive, complex and time-consuming. Out of necessity or choice, many women turn to informal, customary justice systems where too they encounter prejudice and injustice.
If we are to create a truly gender-friendly post-2015 Development Agenda, then we must prioritize women’s access to justice and the rule of law.
The 2012 UN Declaration on the Rule of Law recognized “the importance of ensuring that women, on the basis of the equality of men and women, fully enjoy the benefits of the rule of law.” Governments committed themselves to “… using law to uphold … equal rights and ensure … full and equal participation, including in institutions of governance and the judicial system, and … to establishing appropriate legal and legislative frameworks to prevent and address all forms of discrimination and violence against women and to secure their empowerment and full access to justice.”
That rhetoric must be made a reality through the development agenda.
Let me add that women themselves must play a bigger role to make that happen. As a field-based organization we have found that the greater participation of women themselves in the justice sector – as judges, lawyers, prosecutors and court officials – significantly improves women’s access to justice. Justice by women often produces better justice for women, not because women are more just than men but because in many traditional societies women lawyers and judges can understand better the situation that women victims and petitioners face. Women policy makers can better ensure that women’s views and interests are included in justice policies and regulatory frameworks.
As part of IDLO’s pledge to improve women’s legal empowerment, on Tuesday this week we launched our first country report on women’s participation in the justice sector with a case study on Afghanistan. The important message of that report is that Afghan women are not victims but agents of change.
We will not be able to eradicate poverty or promote sustainable development or create inclusive societies when justice and accountability systems do not meet the needs of women; when women are not able to participate fully and freely in decisions that affect their lives; when the law itself discriminates against them; when opportunities are only open to a few based on gender, wealth and privilege.
Unless we secure women’s human rights through the rule of law, we will fail, not only to make development work equally for women and men, but will also fail to prioritize those women who are the most vulnerable, the most marginalized and most in need.
Progress on gender equality under the MDGs has been hampered by its silence on the legal inequalities that hold women back. The new development framework must be based on a clear commitment to gender equality, women’s rights and the rule of law.