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Access to justice
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Justice for women and girls must be at the core of our COVID-19 response

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Mary Robinson in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. (Photo: Girls Not Brides)

Mary Robinson underscores that crises are never gender-neutral and calls on governments to address the intersecting issues faced by women and girls in their pandemic recovery plans.

This keynote speech was delivered at “Justice on the Frontline: Tackling gender injustice during the pandemic” – an NGO CSW65 Virtual Forum panel event discussing a research initiative examining institutional responses to women’s justice needs during COVID-19, on 18 March 2021.

I am delighted to be joining this event today – I am surrounded in this virtual space by such inspiring feminists and human rights champions.

As we focus on the lived experiences of women and girls around the world, I am reminded that although this conversation is virtual the issues that we are talking about are very real.

I thank the organisers of today’s event and all those who have supported the Commission on the Status of Women over the years for making this vital discussion on access to justice possible.  

The time is right for a health check on our justice systems and institutions. COVID-19 has not just disproportionately affected certain groups, it has shone a light on the deeply entrenched inequalities that exist in our world.

A key part of the 2030 Agenda is the need to address the global justice gap - the 5.1 billion people who have no access to justice.  For too many, a gulf exists between the promise of justice and realities on the ground.

Crises are never gender-neutral and COVID-19 is no exception. Violence against women has increased. Women are losing their livelihoods faster than men. Millions of women carry a disproportionate responsibility for caregiving.

The United Nations uses the phrase ‘Build Back Better’ but I don’t believe we should go back at all. Now is the time for us to build forward. We need to build forward for justice, for equality, for sustainability.  

Justice systems should be refocused on the expressed needs of women and girls: on ending violence against women and girls; on family issues, including divorce and inheritance; and on those parts of the legal system that can prevent women from earning a decent living.

Justice is an essential service. But while some countries have taken steps to ensure virtual access to courts and continued protection through extension of judicial orders, others have failed to meet the growing needs of women. I think that is borne out in your research. I was very interested to see that a lot of the official systems seemed to break down just because of COVID-19.

In these turbulent times, I have been impressed by grassroots organisations stepping up to support the most marginalised. 

For example, during a pandemic lockdown in Guatemala, the Women’s Justice Initiative used radio broadcasts to amplify essential information on reporting violence and accessing justice. By utilising radio technology with widespread coverage, they reached 100,000 indigenous people across the country.

In India, the My Choices Foundation, under the banner ‘Operation PeaceMaker’, deployed community paralegals who staffed shelters, helped survivors, and mobilised police support. 

COVID-19 has changed the way grassroots justice organisations operate.  They could have given up in the face of such challenges - but they have not. They have adapted.

Shortly, we will hear from our panel about the critical work being done to support women who experience violence during COVID-19. Their organisations have collaborated on a participatory research project where, together, they are striving to provide guidance on how legal empowerment can build people-centred institutions focused on ending violence against women and girls.

Grassroots organisations are often the first, and only, responders to injustice. They are trusted by local populations and able to reach communities where governments cannot. This is why The Elders, along with other non-funding partners, launched the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund. During this pandemic, the fund provides a lifeline to grassroots organisations in the form of flexible, rapid-response grants.  As of today, over $400,000 has been distributed to 30 organisations around the world.

However, it is also vital governments prioritise justice in their COVID-19 recovery plans. The pandemic has laid bare manifold failures that require long-term investment and sustainable solutions. Governments must ensure that addressing the intersecting issues faced by women and girls are at the centre of their recovery planning.

Last year we marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. We have made some progress on the promises made - but nowhere near enough. The Generation Equality Forum will be launched in Mexico at the end of this month, culminating in Paris in June. We have an opportunity to secure a set of concrete, ambitious, and transformative commitments to achieve immediate and irreversible progress towards gender equality. For too long access to justice has been a preserve of the privileged few. Our ‘Generation Equality’ must have access to justice at its heart. Justice is in itself a right, but it is also an enabler of all other rights.

Together we must place women and girls - and justice for women and girls - at the core of our COVID-19 response and beyond.

Thank you.

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