New Delhi: The newly created body, UN Women, launched in January, 2011, on Thursday released its first report on women’s access to justice systems around the world. The report examined access to voting rights, positions in governance, and rights protecting them against rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment and found that although the past century has seen a transformation in their legal rights, the laws that exist on paper have not translated into a more equal reality.
“Functioning law and justice systems are the foundation for gender equality” said Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary general and deputy executive director at UN women, “a number of women have been using the courts to get justice, winning decisions that help not only themselves but other women everywhere.”
South Asia is a key area for development, the report notes, and, paradoxically, has some of the best and worst realities. While domestic violence, marital rape and sexual harassment are still real problems, strategic litigation (where a single case creates broader legal and social change) has been very effective here.
In India, a social worker named Bhanwari Devi, was gang-raped in the course of her job in a village in Rajasthan. With the help of a women’s organisation, Vishaka, Devi won a supreme court battle which prompted government to introduce a sexual harassment in the workplace bill in 2007.
However, the country’s record on rape convictions and inclusion of women as lawmakers leaves much to be desired, said Indira Jaisingh, additional solicitor general of India and director of the Lawyers Colletive, Women’s Rights Inititiave. “We have to hold public servants accountable for their inaction,” Jaising said.
In Bangladesh there is no law preventing marital rape, although a domestic violence act was passed this year and is in the process of being implemented. In Pakistan, said lawyer and human rights activist Hina Jilani, local community courts still pass judgements based on retaliation. In a recent case a rapist’s sister was sentenced to be raped as punishment for her brother’s crime. Pakistan has no laws prohibiting domestic violence or marital rape as yet although draft legislation is underway and a sexual harassment bill has been passed.
“Pakistan has a very energetic and motivated civil society,” said Jilani, “that’s the reason the state itself is rather apathetic, priority to women’s rights is not consistent there.”
The report concludes there is a strong correlation between women’s representation in legal system and police forces and political and social equality and calls for quotas to improve the ratio of women judges and police for that reason. In South Asia it also observes a large gender pay gap and a “feminzation of poverty” according to Puri.