After the general discussion organised by the CEDAW Committee, women’s access to justice was once again the centre of attention during a side-event of the Human Rights Council 22nd session hosted by the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO).

Why laws cannot solve everything

Much remains to be done to guarantee women’s equal and full access to justice.  In many countries, there is a legal framework officially protecting women’s human rights and equality, yet one cannot but notice that many of these laws fall short of ensuring women’s access to justice. There is the rub: laws are not sufficient; mentalities have to change in practice. A legal system is essential for advancing women’s rights and gender equality, but to genuinely move forward, we have to go beyond the rule of law with the aim of establishing a culture of justice, and this is a huge challenge.

Photo of the IDLO report on women's access to justiceIn some specific situations, laws can even be counterproductive: sometimes, violations persist but underground, which makes them even more difficult to tackle thereafter. Beyond the law, it is therefore necessary to involve civil society, NGOs, the media and even the private sector to encourage a change of mentalities and to promote women’s rights and access to justice. This change of mentality must start in the security forces and the judiciary to ensure women’s access to law.

Also, paralegal activities have proven to be helpful to encourage women to bring their cases to courts and to ensure they receive a fair treatment: many local associations intend to coach them, to accompany them to courts when it’s necessary, so that they feel more confident when facing the intimidation from their relatives and communities.

Easier access to informal yet discriminatory justice systems

In developing countries, up to 80% of cases (brought both by men and women) are resolved through customary justice systems. Women in particular tend to turn more often to informal set-ups, because of pressure from their families and lack of information about formal systems. Women therefore have a preference for more accessible, more rapid and more understandable traditional justice, which is widely supported by their communities, contrary to formal justice.

However, these customary systems are often unfair to women and often do not comply with international standards either. In many instances, they even reinforce some of the prejudices against women.

Further efforts must be made to progressively integrate customary judicial practices. Codification would be the solution to end this opaque informal system, but it is a tricky issue since it would develop a parallel system and may block possible improvements of these customary laws.

Although we still have a very long way to go, WILPF remains fully optimistic about women’s access to justice. We were pleased to see an all-women panel leading the dialogue, but the small number of men in the audience reminds us that men should mobilize as well in our efforts to achieve gender equality and we need to engage them.