Reality Check: Are Justice Systems Just to Women and Girls?
Published: 22 November 2021
Legal reforms, including specialized courts, can provide women and girls better access to justice for gender-based violence.
Gender-based violence has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the situation of many women and girls more vulnerable. A reality check is needed to ensure that all members of society are able to participate and can equally rely on the judicial system. The problem lies not in the lack of fair laws but in their implementation.
In many developing and developed economies, the justice system has gaps that impede fair and effective protection of women and girls who experience gender-based violence. This requires a look at existing solutions, especially, with the recent surge in incidents. Available data from select countries show that domestic violence reports and calls have increased by 30% since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. However, extremely low conviction rates of criminal cases related to gender-based violence are common in many countries, from which women suffer physical, psychological, and emotional damage. In some countries, this issue has been addressed with the help of technical assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
A common flaw of justice systems in addressing gender-based violence is victim-blaming—a powerful way to discourage the survivors and the responsible judiciary officials from pursuing a just and resilient community. Not only does such a mindset shift the attention from the core problem, resulting in slow system responsiveness, but it also demonstrates insensitivity to the trauma of survivors.
To improve the efficiency of the system, legal reforms are necessary. A more holistic approach is to ensure practical support for the victims, such as providing temporary shelters, transportation, and childcare facilities. Therefore, giving just treatment to survivors calls for various organizations to play their role in mitigating systemic gaps.
Systemic flaws are the burden of the responsible stakeholders and policy makers, not the survivors. This is another problem that requires attention. It is not always recognized by legal officials. Systemic insensitivity means insensitive judiciaries. It seems that to draw greater attention and encourage action on this issue, one needs to facilitate discussions and inject awareness among agents of justice systems. Mechanisms to translate awareness into action are necessary to ensure that this concern is not simply left on the discussion table.
One idea is to establish a special court for gender-based violence cases. This involves training judges and prosecutors through survivor-centric workshops to effectively handle these cases. This is followed by the implementation of measures to assist survivors and other witnesses, such as special rules of court for these cases and reorganization of the court’s physical layout to provide them a safe space. Asia’s first model of a specialized court in Lahore, Pakistan is a successful example. It resulted in a four-fold increase in rape convictions to 16.5% in 2018 from 4.25% in 2016. Promoting awareness of reform efforts among legal officials is crucial to achieve such results. The Court Companion on Gender-Based Violence Cases published by ADB discusses gender-based violence courts and the Pakistan experience in detail.
International and domestic advocates for an inclusive society can help countries promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Cooperation at the international and domestic levels can help ensure that the legal process adheres to both gender sensitivity and fair trial principles. It also enables governments to better equip women with adequate knowledge about social and legal justice.
Gaps in the social infrastructure resurface in the face of crises. Tackling these issues through legal and justice systems requires greater consciousness and collaboration. Mitigating inequality in society is not only the role of legal practitioners, but everyone has to take responsibility for the language being used and the stereotypes that are promoted. This is a crucial step in enabling survivors of gender-based violence to fully participate in society without worrying about their safety.
Thus, while gender inclusion advocates can equip governments with better tools and knowledge to enhance the effectiveness of reforms, the public also needs to provide social support and remove cultural barriers to encourage discussion of issues related to gender-based violence. This is key to empowering women and restoring the confidence of victims. This is where cooperation between nongovernmental organizations, mass media, culturally sensitive non-traditional media (especially in rural areas), and other stakeholders comes into play. This is an effective way to reach local communities and communicate the main message. Having a platform to discuss the role of gender-responsive judicial systems not only raises the public’s awareness but also contributes to the establishment of a long-lasting support system for women and girls.
Asian Development Bank. 2018. ADB Promoting Access to Justice to Fight Gender-Based Violence. News Release. 27 November.
ADB. Law and Policy Reform Program. Success Stories: Gender Equality and Access to Justice.
United Nations Development Programme. 2020. UNDP Brief: Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19. New York: UNDP.
Z. A. Aziz and M. C. Sicangco, eds. 2021. Court Companion on Gender-Based Violence Cases. Manila: Asian Development Bank.
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