UN Women Deputy Director John Hendra on Women’s Access to Justice

Date: Friday, July 22, 2011

Speech delivered by UN Women Deputy Director and Assistant Secretary-General John Hendra, Tanoa International Hotel, Nadi, Fiji, Thursday, 21 July 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Honourable Prime Minister Willy Telavi of Tuvalu, Honourable Minister, participants in the Fourth Pacific Women Ministers' Conference and Regional Meeting on Strengthening Peace and Security, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

It is a great privilege to be here to launch UN Women's first flagship report Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice. I am delighted that this launch coincides with the Fourth Pacific Women Ministers Conference and the formulation of the Pacific UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) for 2013-2017.

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to briefly highlight the key findings of Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice.

Progress is UN Women's biennial global assessment of progress towards gender equality. It aims to inspire bold action by governments and civil society to meet their commitments and accelerate the achievement of women's rights worldwide.

This past year has been memorable. As you know well, UN Women is the United Nations agency dedicated to gender equality and women's empowerment. When the General Assembly voted unanimously to create this new agency last July, four existing entities within the UN system were brought together, with a mandate to ensure greater coherence for gender equality issues and a stronger and more effective voice on women's rights.

I am also personally very excited to be in the Pacific for the first time to help launch our first major report, in which we have chosen to focus on women's access to justice, an important theme that has been highlighted several times today. This stems from the recognition that laws and justice systems that work well are the foundation for gender equality.

Laws can change society and justice systems can provide the means for women to demand accountability: to put a stop to violence in their relationships, to claim citizenship rights, to get married and divorced on equal terms to men, or to claim the land, inheritance or pay to which they are entitled.

In fact, the courts have been the site of some incredible groundbreaking legal decisions, many of which we highlight in the report.

Women all over the world have used the courts to get justice, winning decisions that benefit not only themselves, but expand access to justice for millions of other women.

To take just one example, in a groundbreaking case, the Forum for Women, Law and Development brought a case to the Supreme Court of Nepal to challenge the provision of the criminal code that exempted husbands from being charged with the rape of their wives.

The Court ordered Parliament to amend the rape law, but the penalty was set at only six months' imprisonment, much lower than for other types of sexual assault. So the campaigners went back to court, forcing the Government to amend the law again.

Cases such as these reflect sweeping changes to the assumption that a wife implicitly consents to all sexual activity. By April of this year, at least 52 States had explicitly outlawed marital rape in their criminal codes.

In fact, in Asia Pacific and beyond, there have been several significant transformations in legal frameworks.

In our comprehensive review of legislation, we found that two thirds of countries globally now have laws against domestic violence, which is a significant shift even from 10 years ago.

Fifteen countries in East Asia and the Pacific now have domestic violence laws and six Asian countries have taken the important step of explicitly outlawing rape within marriage — Hong Kong, SAR (China), Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam.

This shift is important not only because of the protection it affords women, but also because it signals a willingness on the part of governments to regulate the private, as well as the public domain.

For centuries, the private domain has been seen as ‘outside of justice'. Domestic violence was seen as a private matter, rape within marriage was not understood as a crime, sexual harassment was just a normal part of working life for women.

Advances in gender justice in the Pacific region over the past decade are also worth noting:

  1. Papua New Guinea's 2002 Amendment to the Criminal Code which aims to strengthen legislation to protect women and children from sexual violence;
  2. Solomon Islands 2009 Amendment of Evidence Act which outlaws several common law rules that discriminated against women;
  3. Vanuatu's Family Protection Act 2009 which provides protection order in domestic violence cases;
  4. Fiji's Family Law Act 2002, the first comprehensive Family Law in the Pacific, that being said, as expressed this morning by many participants, there is still paucity of comprehensive violence against women legislation in the Pacific, a situation that needs to change quickly; and
  5. Kiribati and Solomon Islands' national policies on ending violence against women.

Extending the protection of the rule of law to the private domain is also vital for securing women's economic rights as it is also the place where women earn a living. Globally, more than half of women workers are in the informal economy, often in family businesses or as domestic workers.

Carried out behind closed doors, these jobs are almost always unregulated and unprotected by labour legislation. Here too, though we are seeing important changes. Jordan, Indonesia and Brazil are among those that have made it clear that labour rights apply to domestic workers. And just last month, the International Labour Organisation, the ILO, voted to adopt a far-reaching new convention, with the aim of protecting these vulnerable women from abuse.

Ensuring access to decent work is essential for women to be able to achieve their rights, but it also has broader ramifications. It is estimated that limits on women's participation in the workforce across Asia-Pacific cost the broader region an estimated USD 89 billion every year.

Laws are not simply about individual accountability, they are about changing the way that society behaves. Analysing attitude surveys, we found that in countries without laws on domestic violence, on average half of women and men think that it's sometimes acceptable for a man to beat his wife. In those countries with laws, less than a quarter did.

Of course we know that social change is complicated and laws do not lead automatically to change. But, there are measures that Governments can take to make implementation more likely.

Drawing on examples from other regions, in Rwanda, the Government has put in place procedures to ensure that women are included in the land registration process. The National Land Centre has undertaken widespread training of local land committees. Research on the impact of the laws on women's land rights in Rwanda found that legal changes are affecting land inheritance patterns in practice. Many male family heads have commented that under the new law they felt obliged to give their daughters land.

Laws and importantly implementation matter, but so does the delivery of justice — by the police, by the courts and through legal aid. The courts and justice system provide a vital accountability mechanism for women, but in many cases, the infrastructure of justice systems is failing.

Sadly, it is still the case in many countries that women are very reluctant to report crimes to the police. Across 57 countries, on average 10 percent of women said they had been sexually assaulted, but only 11 percent had reported it. The fear of social stigma can be overwhelming for women, particularly in cases of sexual violence, crimes where the victim is often more stigmatized than the perpetrator.

It is hard though to blame women for not reporting these crimes, when we see how few result in a just outcome. Analysis of rape conviction rates in Europe showed that on average, just 14 percent of reported cases ends in a conviction, a rate that falls to just 5 percent in some countries.

The report finds that putting women on the front-line of law enforcement can also make a difference. The all-women police brigade sent to post-conflict Liberia, for example, helped to increase reporting of violence against women, and also increased recruitment of women into the police force.

Analysis in this year's Progress report confirms this. Data from 39 countries show that there is a positive correlation between the presence of women police officers and higher levels of reporting of sexual assault.

In many instances, women simply cannot afford justice. Women may have to pay for legal advice as we had today, for transport to arrest the suspect, or for vital forensic evidence to be collected.

Free legal aid and support then is critical. Organizations like the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre provide practical advice and support to women experiencing domestic violence. According to research by the Centre, two thirds of women in Fiji have been abused by their partners.

But in Fiji, in common with many other countries, the majority of public funding for legal aid supports defendants in criminal cases, with little provision for survivors of violence or to deal with family law cases. This leaves many women without the support they need.

In response, the Centre provides free and confidential crisis counselling and legal advice, as well as referrals to courts, police stations, hospitals and other agencies. By 2010, they had provided assistance to nearly 20,000 clients.

Such one-stop shop models have been successfully used in a number of countries and are shown to be a relatively low cost approach to reducing this problem of attrition in the justice chain.

Once women reach the courts, they need to know that they will be treated fairly and with respect. A 2010 decision by the CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol highlights the problem of widespread discriminatory attitudes among the judiciary.

Karen Vertido of the Philippines claimed that she was raped by a work colleague. Her pursuit of justice took 11 years, but when she finally got her day in court, the man was acquitted. Rather than being grounded in fact or in law, the decision was based on common “rape myths, such as the idea that rape victims are timid or easily cowed, and that when a woman knows her attacker, consent is implied.

The Committee found that the woman had been “re-victimized through her treatment by the court, arguing that “stereotyping affects women's rights to a fair and just trial. They recommended that the Government award compensation and put in place appropriate training for judges to ensure that the courts provide a fair deal for women.

Honourable Ministers, whether as police or judges, as Parliamentarians or activists, women are playing a critical role in driving the change we need to see. Also, as discussed today, in those countries that have seen large increases in women's representation in political decision-making, progressive laws on labour rights, health care and property often follow. Women have demanded change in laws that discriminate against them, shaping new laws and policies to drive forward positive change.

Increasing women's political participation remains a priority area of advocacy for the Pacific region. The current advocacy and demand by women in various Pacific countries to see a change in electoral laws and systems and public attitudes towards political leadership has fueled a demand for catalytic decisions like adopting temporary special measures.

Amplifying women's voices is especially important in legal systems based on custom, or religious or ethnic identity. The report draws on examples from Burundi to Ecuador, Pakistan to South Africa where women activists have made it clear that culture or religion cannot be used as an excuse to justify gender discrimination and injustice.

In summary, this year's Progress report contains proven and achievable recommendations that cut across all of UN Women's strategic priorities, including putting in place laws to end violence against women, making justice systems work for women, ensuring women's voices are heard in decision-making, securing women's access to decent work and land, and delivering transformative justice for women in the aftermath of conflict.

This edition of Progress builds on the work of all of UN Women's partners — in Governments, in civil society and in the UN — to strengthen the rule of law. It outlines a vision for the future in which women and men, worldwide, can work side-by-side to make gender equality and women's empowerment a reality.

I thank you very much for attending this evening, and for working together with UN Women and UNCT and the wider UN system to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Pacific region.

Vinaka Vaka Levu.