UN offers 10 ways to eliminate the global justice disparity for women

While the world is making progress on putting women in positions of power and passing legislation to promote gender equality, these laws often don't reach those who need the most help, says new UN report.

The number of women working in governments worldwide is climbing. The breadth of legislation to assist and protect women is also growing. Though both of these developments may look promising, many of the policies that female legislators craft to help other women don’t reach those who most need it.

That message of mitigated success underlies the report “Progress of the World’s Women 2011-2012: In Pursuit of Justice,” launched today by the year-old organization UN Women. It's an exhaustive 164-page study filled with statistics, case studies, and other research to support UN Women's recommendations for eliminating the justice disparity between men and women worldwide.

“There are vast implementation gaps,” UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet told reporters at the report launch today. “Legislating is only the first step. Then it is essential to ensure implementation.”

The comprehensive report’s biggest contribution, says Papa Seck, the lead statistician for the report, is the analysis provided. By identifying the links between desired outcomes and particular practices, the authors were able to make policy recommendations in the report that they know will work and include case studies that illustrate the success.

Ten recommendations

The backbone of the report is a list of 10 recommendations to make the justice system "work for women,” based off of successes around the world. Included in the recommendations are using quotas to increase the number of women legislators and increasing the number of women in police forces to boost reporting of sexual violence.

Twenty-eight countries have surpassed a 30 percent benchmark recommended for female representation in national parliament, and 23 of them got there by using quotas, says Laura Turquet, the lead author of the report. “Quotas really do work,” she says, particularly in places with a history of discrimination against women.

But policies only go so far, UN Women acknowledges. Several of the other recommendations address a gap between policy and implementation.

Two-thirds of the world's countries now have domestic violence laws in place, but Ms. Turquet points out that even in countries with rigorous laws protecting women from domestic violence and sexual assault, convictions are rare because of high rates of attrition. In rape cases, the steps between reporting the crime and going to trial are so numerous and complicated that women often give up well before a conviction can happen.

'One-stop shops' solutions

One solution to this dilemma, included as another one of the 10 recommendations, is what the authors have dubbed “one-stop shops,” which combine the legal, health, and forensic services a woman needs to pursue a rape case against her assailant. “The fewer steps a women has to take, the more likely she is to pursue justice,” Turquet says.

South Africa’s Thuthuzela Care Centers lauded as a “best practice model,” hint at the potential for these one-stop shops. In one province there, it only took an average of 7.5 months to prosecute rape cases when the centers were involved, and about 89 percent of of those cases ended with a conviction – compared with two years to prosecute and the 6 percent conviction rate in the province’s mainstream legal system.

The report is filled with case studies of best practices like South Africa’s care centers, which UN Women hopes will prompt change in countries facing similar obstacles. “Role modeling,” as Turquet calls it, has a multiplier effect that inspires others to follow suit.

All-women Indian police units deployed alongside UN peacekeepers in post-conflict Liberia prompted a jump in the recruitment of Liberian women to Liberia's police forces – another of UN Women’s 10 recommendations. A data analysis of sexual violence reporting revealed that both women and men were more likely to report cases of sexual violence to female law enforcement, says Mr. Seck, the statistician.

No excuses

Attempts at improving women's access to justice are sometimes rejected based on arguments that the reforms run counter to religious practice and tradition, but this report is filled with examples of improvements in places where the UN and other organizations were able to work with the communities to increase women's rights despite discrimination based on religious practice, Ms. Bachelet said.

"The report draws on examples from Burundi to Ecuador, Pakistan to Mexico, to make it clear that culture and religion cannot be used to justify gender discrimination and injustice,” she says.

She cited the UN's work in Ethiopia and Mauritania to eliminate female genital mutilation, which was already prohibited by law but still occurring regularly. UN workers sat down with religious leaders and the Koran and found that there was nothing there to support the practice. They have since been able to get local leaders on board with their efforts to get rid of the practice.

"You have to work with community leaders, religious leaders to see very deep inside what's the thing producing this kind of situation," Bachelet said.


The report does not come tied to justice-specific funding or recommendations for where and how governments and civil society organizations should spend their money, but it will help them decide where to direct it, Bachelet said.

Of UN Women’s $300 million budget this year, $120 million is not allocated for any particular project or country and can be shifted with the organization’s priorities: the world’s least developed countries, those where women’s rights lag the most, conflict and post-conflict zones, and the “middle income” countries that often don’t meet the criteria for significant UN support but have large numbers of women living in poverty.

“If we can show how things work so we can encourage countries to really make their own investment, I think we can all say that women are so essential and you have to reflect that in your national decisions,” Bachelet said.

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