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Rule of law has failed women in developing world - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 13 Feb 2013 08:36 GMT
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By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - Gender inequality deprives women and girls of justice in the developing world, whether they seek it from formal law courts or informal community justice systems, said a report by the International Development Law Organization.

“The law has, quite simply, failed women,” Irene Khan, IDLO director-general, said in a statement. “States, particularly in the developing world, have ignored their duty to extend to women the essence of the rule of law: equal protection.”

Despite heavy investment in state legal systems and the ubiquity of customary village courts, “the rule of law continues to mean very little for the vast majority of women and girls,” according to “Accessing Justice: Models, Strategies and Best Practices on Women’s Empowerment.”

There are two key reasons for this, the report found.

First, the reality and potential efficacy of dual justice systems is often dismissed in favor of formal state legal structures even though four out of five cases in developing countries are resolved by informal courts.

“Women’s own experience, in fact, suggests the issue at stake is not the choice of one form of justice over another,” Khan wrote in the introduction to the report. “What matters is to ensure that women do get justice, no matter where they seek it. And, even as attempts are made to improve formal legal systems, customary systems cannot be ignored.”

Second, women often cannot access justice in either system because they lack knowledge of their rights or are ignorant of the ways in which they can insist on claiming them. Without these abilities, many women find it particularly difficult to challenge cultural norms that reinforce gender inequality.


“The key message of the study is that by empowering women to claim their rights, women are better equipped to bring about change in their communities,” Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in her foreword to the report.

“The present study highlights the critical role legal empowerment strategies can play in changing and challenging oppressive gender relations that are justified under the name of culture.”

Legal empowerment strategies can improve women’s access to justice in both formal and informal systems, creating a “culture of justice” among women where equality and non-discrimination become expected norms, according to the report.

Such strategies range from the provision of literacy education, rights awareness and legal aid services, to the training of paralegals and support for non-discriminatory alternative dispute mechanisms to complement or supplement informal justice systems.


To illustrate the various legal challenges women face in formal and informal justice systems, the report offers case studies from Africa, Asia and the South Pacific, and the strategies used to address the following issues:

- The social stigma and legal discrimination encountered by unwed mothers trying to obtain official identity papers for their children from the state legal system in Morocco;

- The problems faced by Rwandan widows and divorcees trying to exercise their land rights in rural areas where customary law holds sway;

- The pervasiveness of violence against women in Afghanistan and lack of enforcement of laws against it due to cultural norms;

- Widespread trafficking of girls and women in India despite laws against it and lack of prosecution for traffickers.

The reasons women find it difficult to access justice go beyond simple ignorance of their rights.

“Political, social, cultural, economic and psychological barriers that obstruct women’s access to justice and legal empowerment are found at every stage of the ‘justice chain’,” the report said. These barriers include illiteracy, lack of resources and time to travel to and participate in legal proceedings, family pressure, entrenched gender discrimination, poverty, fear of violence and discomfort in dealing with state legal structures.

Despite these obstacles, the report concludes that “while legal empowerment is not the panacea to the wider problems of inequality, discrimination and the poverty of women, it can make a positive contribution, which, if properly integrated with other initiatives, will place women on a better trajectory towards effectively addressing discriminatory practices.”


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