This opinion piece was written by Melissa Evans, Consultant at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime on behalf of the Global Judicial Integrity Network Secretariat. This piece is nominated in Apolitical’s women in government writing competition.
According to a 2011 United Nations report, women only account for 27% of judges worldwide.
However, representation of women in the judiciary is key to ensuring that the courtroom accurately represents its citizens, addresses their concerns and provides them with sound decisions.
Conversely, the lack of equal representation could lead to the distrust of the public in the judiciary or even prevent equal access to justice. The Global Judicial Integrity Network supports raising awareness for gender-related issues in the judiciary to help combat these issues.
Women bring a unique and much-needed perspective to the judiciary. They offer a different perspective on the biases often faced by women in the courtroom because they can relate to women’s concerns on a more personal level. As Judge Vanessa Ruiz, President of the International Association of Women Judges, describes it: “women judges bring those lived experiences to their judicial actions, experiences that tend toward a more comprehensive and empathetic perspective— one that encompasses not only the legal basis for judicial action, but also awareness of consequences on the people affected.”
Although these experiences are applicable to many types of court proceedings, they become particularly pertinent in cases related to domestic violence or sexual assault. A gendered perspective could help judges to recognise instances of unconscious biases in the judiciary.
This could become particularly troubling in cases of violence against women
Ugandan Supreme Court Judge Lilian Tibatemwa described such a situation succinctly when she was interviewed by the Global Judicial Integrity Network:
“I remember sitting in a law class and being told that when someone comes before you as a complainant in a sexual offence case, you should warn yourself of the danger of convicting an accused person in a sexual offence on the basis of testimony of the complainant without seeking independent evidence to support that story— that is a stereotype. If somebody is a liar, then they are a liar. You can’t say that women tell false stories in sexual assault cases, and when it comes to women appearing before you in a property-related case, that you can believe their stories without corroboration.”
This incident illustrates how unconscious biases risk judges’ commitment to ensuring equality.
In the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, an ethical standard to guide judges in their work, it is stated that “ensuring equality of treatment to all before the courts is essential to the due performance of the judicial office” and that “a judge shall be aware of, and understand, diversity in society.”
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Equal representation of women in the judiciary could further this concept of awareness and understanding of diversity. Former Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Shiranee Tilakawardane, suggests that states should strive to create an “inclusive and representative judiciary that embraces diversity,” as the judiciary should represent society as a whole.
If diversity and equality are not respected, it could potentially have negative ramifications. Simply put, if women do not believe that they have equal access to justice, they will be less likely to pursue it.
Taking the agenda to the world stage
This could become particularly troubling in cases of violence against women.
According to Judge Judith Jones of Trinidad and Tobago, it was recently discovered that in Trinidad and Tobago only “26% of persons who have experienced intimate partner violence went to the police, and unfortunately, only 6% accessed the court.” As she explains, these statistics demonstrate “a lack of confidence in our judiciary in how we treat domestic violence.”
In her opinion, it shows a “pure ignorance and indifference on the part of the judicial officer” that must be addressed by incorporating gender-related issues into judicial training programmes. She explains that awareness-raising and capacity building helps to “ensure that judicial officers not only understand what is contained in the legislation, but also understand gender-related issues,” including “what the survivors of domestic violence have to undergo.”
The Global Judicial Integrity Network is also doing its part to spread this practice internationally, by incorporating gender-related issues into its new judicial conduct training package, which is currently being piloted in over 40 countries.
Overall, the Global Judicial Integrity Network is addressing gender-related issues, like lack of representation and unequal access to justice, by drawing upon the diverse experiences of judges worldwide to identify and raise awareness in the judiciary.
This includes not only the training course, but also the drafting of an issue paper on gender-related issues to serve as an international standard for judiciaries. In addition to other recommendations, judiciaries worldwide should likewise strive to incorporate gender components into their training and hiring processes, work to create clear frameworks and disciplinary procedures to tackle gender-related issues and adhere to established international guidelines.
Many of these issues seem pervasive, but with an active commitment to competence and diligence in the pursuit of equality, they are obstacles that judiciaries will be able to overcome. — Melissa Evans on behalf of the Global Judicial Integrity Network Secretariat.
(picture credit: Unsplash)