Women’s Access to Justice

Nani, a balloon lamp maker at village in Indonenesia's West Java Province, Indonesia. Photo: UN Women/Roni Bintang
Nani, a balloon lamp maker at village in Indonenesia's West Java Province, Indonesia. Photo: UN Women/Roni Bintang

The rule of law, a cornerstone of good governance and democracy, requires that laws are in place to hold everyone to account, from the individual to the government. However, for millions of women and girls around the world, the reality is that the rule of law means little in practice. The two areas in which women’s rights are least protected, where the rule of law is weakest and men’s privilege is often most entrenched, are: (i) women’s rights in the private and domestic sphere. This includes their right to live a life free of violence, to enjoy equal rights with their partner in marriage and divorce, and to fully realize their reproductive health rights; and (ii) their right to decent work and to inherit and control land and other productive resources.

Law is a key component of social change, contributing to the development of norms and providing the framework for translating international standards into national benchmarks. Law can provide a vital mechanism for women to hold individuals and institutions to account and to prevent abuse of power, particularly within the family and the workplace. Without a solid legal foundation, attempts to make courts more accessible to women, make police less hostile to their complaints and bring in other necessary reforms to the administration of justice, are likely to be beyond our reach. Enhancing the ability of women to access justice is essential to further gender inequality and discrimination, and for furthering development and human security. Women’s empowerment in every aspect of their lives is reliant upon systems of law and justice that work for women.

Over the years, there has been an expansion of women’s legal entitlements in many national contexts. However, laws that are discriminatory toward women and gaps in legal frameworks continue to be serious challenges around the world. Although most countries in the Asia and the Pacific region are parties to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), many of these countries retain reservations that limit the application and practice of the principles in the Convention. There has been progress in strengthening the promotion and protection of women’s human rights, but for millions of women across the region, the reality remains that justice is still out of reach.

Progress in this area is limited by many factors. One of the main barriers for women in accessing justice in Asia and the Pacific is the existence of laws that explicitly discriminate against them, for instance restrictive interpretations of religious laws and patriarchal laws on land rights. In addition, deeply entrenched discriminatory and gender-biased attitudes, norms and practices – including by justice practitioners and by community members – prevent women from accessing justice and in many cases, women have also internalized harmful gender norms, limiting their own justice-seeking behavior. Further, the presence of plural justice systems – which exist in many countries in the Asia Pacific region – can, in itself, limit women’s access to justice by perpetuating and reinforcing discriminatory social norms.

These constraints on women’s access to justice must be addressed in order to advance the Sustainable Development Goals and combat discrimination towards women. Ensuring strong legal frameworks and non-discriminatory practices in the judicial sphere is a first step towards eliminating the social and legal conditions that perpetuate gender inequality.

UN Women’s Approach

To effectively enhance women’s access to justice in Asia and the Pacific, approaches must focus on combatting gender stereotypes and discriminatory practices and on engaging women from the grassroots to inform and lead change.

UN Women’s theory of change says that if:

  1. A legal enabling environment for women to access gender-responsive justice in Asia and the Pacific is created by advocating for laws and court decisions that are consistent with international human rights law and standards, including CEDAW;
  2. Plural justice systems are gender-responsive because gaps between formal and informal settings are bridged through increased understanding and awareness of justice system providers of women’s rights in Asia and the Pacific; and
  3. Grassroots women’s organizations and community-based women’s organizations in Asia and the Pacific are empowered and well positioned to document and facilitate interactions between and with formal and informal justice providers, and their resilience is enhanced to build a just and sustainable future,

Then, women’s access to justice will be enhanced in the Asia Pacific region.

With this theory of change at the heart of our programming, UN Women, in partnership with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is implementing a five-year programme, generously funded by the Government of Sweden, on Enhancing Access to Justice for Women in Asia and the Pacific: Bridging the gap between formal and informal systems through women’s empowerment. The project will be implemented at the regional level, with six areas of focus: Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and the Pacific Island Countries. The project will work in three key areas to enhance women’s access to justice in the Asia Pacific region:

  1. Advocacy for CEDAW compliant laws and court decisions through examination of domestic legislation vis-à-vis international human rights law and standards and presenting the analysis to parliamentarians, and strategic litigation before domestic courts on cases involving women’s human rights;
  2. Awareness and capacity building of key actors from formal and informal justice systems to eliminate gender discriminatory attitudes and stereotyped behaviors towards women in all components of plural justice systems; and
  3. Empowerment of women to build a just and sustainable future by enabling them to document interactions with formal and informal justice providers and providing safe spaces for discussions among themselves.