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Hina Jilani calls on leaders to move from commitment to action on justice for women and girls.

This speech was delivered at a webinar entitled "Justice for Women and Girls: Moving from Commitment to Action Amidst COVID-19", co-hosted by the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), UN Women, World Bank, and Pathfinders for Peaceful, Justice and Inclusive Societies, on 23 October 2020.

This is a subject very close to my heart. It has been my privilege to contribute to this discussion as a co-chair of the Task Force on Justice.

I am proud that The Elders launched an Access to Justice programme in February last year and emphasised that women’s justice needs must be kept as a priority.

For me, justice for women is not just to ensure relief and redress against discrimination or violence, but also to ensure that justice is delivered in a manner that empowers women.

It is important to have laws that recognise women’s entitlement to fundamental freedoms and to obtain justice within the social environment in which they live. However, processes and procedures on the ground to make these rights a reality are also important.

In my 40 years as an activist, I have seen many victories, both at the global level and in my country. Unfortunately, a lot of what we wanted is still missing. We still need commitment to ensure there is space in our legal, social and protection systems to enable women to access justice for themselves.

The pandemic has pointed out the weaknesses in our response despite the legal and legislative battles we have won over the years.

Globally, we are seeing rising rates of violence against women and more challenges for women to access justice services. Women are losing their livelihoods at a faster rate than men. Women and girls from marginalised communities are especially at risk - in the United Kingdom for example, black women are over four times more likely than white women to die from COVID-19. These are startling figures. The global Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the racial discrimination many women face in justice systems across the world. Crises are never gender-neutral. Women are facing double jeopardy.

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the seminal Beijing Declaration. But while there has been much to celebrate over the past quarter of a century, COVID-19 risks damaging much of the progress towards gender equality that myself and other women activists have spent our lives working towards. We need to take concrete action to make sure that hard-won gains are not reversed, and to prevent a further deepening of the gender inequality rift.

It is important to commemorate these milestones but also important to create structures for women to implement the agendas at the international and local level in order to bridge the inequality rift we have today.

COVID-19 provides us with lessons for other crises and conflicts where women can lose out on gains we have made.

I want to highlight three areas for action that I believe are necessary:

Firstly, we need to do more to support the collective action of women’s groups. Civil society efforts are least appreciated. It is very impressive to see women across the world who are mobilising to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Women’s groups need to be included in funding allocated for the response by governments, donors and the private sector. Fast and flexible funding will help them to be more agile in responding to evolving needs. In this regard, The Elders were proud to support the launch of the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund in July in order to get more resources to frontline justice workers.

Secondly, we must not overlook women deprived of their liberty, whether in prison or in migrant detention facilities. They are an example of the most marginalised communities that we tend to overlook. In Pakistan, we are happy that one of the steps taken by the current government was to release a lot of women from prison, despite its other failures. This lightened the burden on prison authorities to deal with the pandemic in the light of overpopulation of prisons and the risk to health. The World Health Organization and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have called on countries to use early release measures to reduce overcrowding in detention centres to spread the curb of COVID-19. Globally, most women are detained for non-violent offences and particular efforts should be made to release those who are low-risk, pregnant, elderly or held in pre-trial detention. Looking forward, we need to adopt the use of gender-responsive non-custodial measures to ensure detention is a measure of last resort.

Thirdly, we need to incorporate more women in decision-making – in the emergency response as well as the justice sector. This needs to be more than rhetoric. Research has shown that having women involved in justice delivery increases access to justice for women. 

We need to not only “build back better” but also “build back equally”. We have been presented the opportunity to reimagine and redesign our society into a vibrant and equitable one. We must place women and justice for women at the core of the response and beyond.

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