PRI’s Policy Director, Andrea Huber and Programme Officer, Olivia Rope, report from the half-day of discussion of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW) on women’s access to justice.
PRI’s activities at the United Nations this year kicked off with the half-day of discussion of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW) on access to justice.
The Committee has set up this consultation at the UN in Geneva to discuss discrimination faced by women, explicitly women as victims and as defendants as the concept for this consultation encouragingly implied. The discussion will inform a General recommendation which the Committee intends to issue to give guidance to states on measures to address barriers women face accessing justice.
When we talk about ‘women’s access to justice’, most people – and institutions – have in mind measures to address violence against women. But as important as this issue obviously is, it’s only one side of the coin. Whether we like it or not, women are suspects, defendants and convicted prisoners as well, even though in this role women’s rights are far less of an ‘attractive’ subject for discussion. In fact, gender roles mean women offenders and prisoners face particular stigma.
Yet even in their role as defendants women are often also victims, as gender discrimination does not stop in front of a court house or at the prison gates. Women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment at the hands of law enforcement officials, including to gender-based violence. But also, gender-specific needs are rarely met in a prison system set up for the majority male prison population.
Interventions at this half-day of discussion focused on women as victims of domestic and sexual violence, highlighting in particular post-conflict situations, provisions in national constitutions either guaranteeing equality or ‘immunising’ gender discrimination by reference to customary laws, and informal justice systems which usually exclude women and replicate the discriminatory patterns of social norms.
Hardly any of the speakers mentioned women deprived of their liberty and the particular challenges they face in accessing justice when they are accused of an offence. The only mention by either panellists or states representatives related to specific crimes, such as penalisation of abortion, sex work and adultery. Only Amnesty International and Harm Reduction International raised the issue of the barriers to justice faced by women and girls who are suspects.
One barrier to justice that was raised was the difficulty women face in getting legal representation. Women are often dependant on decisions of male family members who decide how the household’s money is spent, and more often than do not see the importance of getting a proper lawyer for a woman. However nobody mentioned at all the obvious consequence of this: that the barriers for a woman in getting justice become even higher if she is then required to defend herself against criminal charges.
Unfortunately, this discussion was a stark reminder of the fact that women are far more popular if they confirm with gender stereotypes, and are labelled as victims of the justice system. Women are not supposed to commit criminal offences and require just treatment simply for this reason, not even in a discussion before the UN Committee dealing with the discrimination of women when accessing justice.
Hopefully some of the issues reflected in PRI’s written statement submitted ahead of the day of discussion will be considered by the CEDAW Committee in the drafting of the General Recommendation.
It is a deeply saddening that the UN Bangkok Rules, a text which – after decades of the issue being overlooked altogether – has filled the gap of standards addressing the pillars of a gender-sensitive criminal justice system was only mentioned once in Conference room XVI at Palais des Nations in Geneva today. PRI and other organisations concerned with the rights of women offenders still have a lot of work to do to bring these standards to the attention of policy-makers.