A Catalyst for Change: Access to Justice and Gender Equality


By Sabrina Mahtani, NYU-CIC Non-Resident Fellow and Advisor to Pathfinders for Justice

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2021 is being heralded as a landmark year for gender equality. From 30 June to 3 July 2021, the Generation Equality Forum culminates in Paris in meetings and events convened by UN Women and co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France. The Forum commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and brings together world leaders and diverse change makers to announce ambitious commitments for gender equality.

The Generation Equality Forum has developed six Action Coalitions. These are multi-stakeholder partnerships designed to catalyze collective action and drive increased public and private sector investment in the following areas: Gender-Based Violence, Economic justice and rights, Bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), Feminist action for climate justice, Technology and innovation for Gender Equality, Feminist movements and leadership.

Justice is a critical component of all these themes and indeed the Sustainable Development Goals. As highlighted by the High-Level Group on Justice for Women, access to justice is a catalyzer, enabling fulfillment of other rights.

Around the world there are organizations of and for women and girls that are working to provide justice for women in all the areas identified by the Generation Equality Forum, to create lasting change in women’s lives.

Gender-Based Violence

An estimated 736 million women — almost 1 in 3 — have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in their lifetime.

The Legal Empowerment Network’s report, Gender Justice: During and Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis, highlights the importance of legal empowerment groups across 19 countries in preventing and responding to gender-based violence.

For example, My Choices Foundation in India trains women in communities, equipping them with knowledge about their rights and enabling them to support survivors of violence with legal assistance.

Economic justice and rights

Legal identity documents — relating to property, business, housing, marriage, employment, children or immigration status — are essential to protect women’s rights and access to services, including access to finance and even a mobile phone. But these can be challenging to obtain, especially for marginalized women.

Legal empowerment organizations, such as the Women’s Justice Initiative (WJI) in Guatemala, play an integral role in protecting women’s economic justice rights.

For example, the WJI Legal Services team helped 41-year-old Magdalena and her family gain their legal identity. Magdalena is a mother of six who, like 50% of indigenous women in Guatemala, gave birth to all of her children at home. Giving birth outside of a hospital means women must travel to register their children at the national registry within 60 days. Magdalena could not afford the registration costs (approximately $6.85 per child) so none of her children had identity documents. Without this, her six children could not be enrolled in school, or receive medical attention. As adults, they would face barriers to employment. WJI helped the family obtain birth certificates through community midwives and the local health center, so that Magdalena and her children can now assert their rights as Guatemalans.

Bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)

Community justice advocates help bridge the gap between policy and practice by strengthening the accountability of health services to marginalized communities.

For example, since 2013, community justice advocates in Mozambique have addressed complaints related to provider absenteeism, mistreatment and neglect of women during labor, bribery, breaches of confidentiality around HIV testing and clinical consults, lack of information about diagnosis and treatment, misplaced clinical files, and lack of running water and functioning toilets at health facilities.

Feminist action for climate justice

Despite their major role in the agricultural sector, women hold less than 15% of land globally. Legal empowerment is critical to securing women’s access to land and environmental rights.

For example, in Sierra Leone, Namati’s Community Land Protection project supports rural communities to use national laws and policies, as well as mapping and documentation, to protect their customary and indigenous lands and natural resources against intruders, land grabbers and exploitative foreign investors. The paralegals also conduct legal literacy sessions with women and the community as a whole to explain the National Land Policy 2015, including its numerous provisions to ensure inclusivity. The policy states, for example, that communities are to establish Village Area Land Committees that include women as members. In the drafting of the bylaws, women were able to push through various gender-justice provisions, such as women having at least 30% membership in the land governance committee, equal opportunity to participate in the harvesting of wild crops and the right to participate in land-related consultations and decision making.

In Sudan, Zenab for Women in Development organizes women farmers to exchange strategies around climate change and advocate for their rights. They founded their country’s first women farmers union and have used their shared strength to push for access to resources and tools previously reserved for men. As their harvests have suffered due to protracted drought, their mutual support is especially vital.

Technology and innovation for Gender Equality

Technology is a key tool to closing the 5.1 billion justice gap and enabling the expansion and innovation of justice solutions for women.

For example, the Innovating Justice Awards have been providing financial and incubation support to a number of justice innovations, such as Mamamoni. This is a peer to peer lending platform in Nigeria for women entrepreneurs, founded by Nigerian women. It provides financial literacy training and empowers women to become financially independent.

Feminist movements and leadership

Feminist movements and leadership, such as the International Association of Women Judges, the ATLAS network and GQUAL, are central to achieving equality and justice for women and have been the driving force behind feminist law reform and policy change.

The Forum and beyond

Justice for women runs through all the Action Coalition of the agenda at the Generation Equality Forum and the Forum is an important springboard to realize equal access to justice for women.

In February 2021, Pathfinders and The Elders hosted a high-level advocacy workshop in which 44 activists and advocates from four continents formulated policy recommendations to enhance access to justice for women.

Image: The Elders

Here’s what governments, civil society, donors, the private sector and individuals can do to contribute:

  1. Make commitments and ensure implementation as part of the Generation Equality Forum commitment process and other related processes, such as the Open Government Partnership and SDG Acceleration Actions.
  2. Increase funding for legal empowerment and justice services that provide increased access to justice for women.
  3. Ensure that funding commitments made at the Generation Equality Forum are also distributed to legal empowerment and justice services, such as through the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund.
  4. Commit to investing in quality data and analysis on women’s justice problems and solutions.
  5. Engage in upcoming justice events and forms and join the Justice Alliance.