Women and the World

This session began with a keynote; an excellent facilitated conversation between Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and Marietta Robinson, which covered a variety of topics touching on Prince Zeid’s experiences from as early as his time as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia, what he did in his role at the UN, and his current work as an academic and as President and CEO of the International Peace Institute. We summarise some of the key takeaways below.

Prince Zeid acknowledged that there would always be a backlash to advances in human rights, but the key was to continue to move forwards and push normative boundaries whether through judicial decisions, efforts in codifying law or otherwise. Prince Zeid has always done just that. The origin for his approach was his work as a peacekeeper in the former Yugoslavia where he felt that if he was ever in a position of authority, he would use it to speak up and say the right thing. Later, as the High Commissioner, his team got involved in issues in several countries “where the rest of the international system was stuck”. This included initiating investigations in countries where the UN is often loath to get involved for fear of backlash. His office, however, had no hesitation. Their approach was always evidence-based; if the office received credible reports of violation, it would pursue the issue.

In this respect, Prince Zeid made the interesting point that even where there is disagreement, there is always room for discussion. He gave as an illustration the fact that while some human rights are easy to identify, some others are much more complex as different cultures and religions look at such issues differently. But when beginning discussions with religious authorities, he would begin with areas of commonality – for example, universal agreement on the importance of the right not to be subject to torture.

When asked by Ms Robinson what he would say specifically to the IAWJ audience, Prince Zeid stressed the importance of a judge’s role in protecting the fundamental right to a fair trial. He commented that the right has been violated in too many countries, and not just in small measures. The most disturbing aspect is that such rights violation cannot occur without the judiciary being “basically complicit” in it. In this respect, Prince Zeid gave examples of leading women judges, such as Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni of Venezuela, who have courageously and fervently upheld the right to a fair trial even when that has led to personal consequences.

Finally, Prince Zeid argued that the subject of human rights is completely misunderstood and as a result does not get the attention it warrants. The issue, as he sees it, is that human rights is seen as a technical discipline filled with legal jargon. This begins at the universities; who assume that human rights is the sole province of law faculties, with barely any mention of human rights topics in the business and social science fields.

We then moved to Mexico, where we heard from Hon Ana Margarita Ríos Farjat and Hon Margarita Beatriz Luna Ramos who spoke about judging with a gender perspective. Justice Ríos Farjat put forward important standards for judging with a gender perspective. She gave the example of a court case that had been dealt with differently at different stages of the judicial hierarchy. It was best dealt with by the Supreme Court, which developed a methodology for gender-sensitive judging. For example, the Court identified there was an uneven relationship of power between the parties which created a vulnerability; reinterpreted the facts and reconsidered the evidence with a gender perspective; and took into consideration the interests of other affected parties including children. Since then there have been other cases where this methodology has been applied which has led to gender-sensitive results. For example, the Judge gave an example of a case of a woman’s death that was first identified as a suicide but later found to be a case of femicide when the facts were analysed with a gender perspective.

Justice Luna Ramos spoke of her experience as the head of a gender committee within Mexico’s judiciary focussing on gender equality. The Committee wanted to establish public policies in favour of formal and substantive equality within the judicial institution. On this, Justice Luna Ramos said a good judge begins with their own practice – for example, offering adequate parental leave for judicial staff. This then flowed into introducing gender perspectives in dispensing justice on a daily basis. The Committee has published a manual for judges with a protocol on this topic. The Judge also spoke of the support received from the IAWJ, which led to the creation of the Mexican chapter of the IAWJ. Today, more than 600 Mexican judges are working side-by-side to introduce gender perspectives in legal proceedings, with the aim of leaving the next generation with a better future.

We then moved to Peru, where Hon Janet Tello Gilardi spoke about the role of judges, men and women, as agents of change. The Judge spoke of the need for those who have been historically marginalised to have access to justice. Thus, the Peruvian chapter of the IAWJ has prioritised opening the door for voices that have long been suppressed. For example, judges have been encouraged to go to more remote parts of Peru to “take justice” to those who have previously not received it. Justice Gilardi said it was important for the judiciary to show their face and get close to people so that the judiciary is not viewed as “unreachable beings”. In this way, judges can create support and uphold values of democracy that have been perverted in older times in countries like Peru. The Judge left us with this parting message: “you fight for what matters to you and you do it in a way that can convince others to join your cause” (translated).

From Côte d’Ivoire we heard from Hon Paule Richmonde Mohiro who spoke about how she and others are fighting for the rights of women and children, particularly in terms of being safe from sexual violence. She explained that in societies such as that of the Ivory Coast, people traditionally want to resolve problems within their community without turning to the judiciary. But, often, these amicable solutions do not vindicate the rights of women and children. Therefore, it is essential that the judiciary builds relationships with the wider community so that people feel comfortable turning to them and they can best assist victims. Of course, the judiciary cannot do it all: a national strategy is required, as well as international co-operation.

Finally, we heard from Nancy Hendry and Hon Margaret McKeown of the United States on the #MeToo movement and the judiciary. Ms Hendry’s talk focussed on how the IAWJ is uniquely positioned to identify and address “gender blindspots”: those gender issues that we know exist but have long done nothing to address. As a global network of women judges, the IAWJ can draw on its members’ lived experiences with all matters that come before the justice system. She particularly talked about her work, along with women judges, on “sextortion”. Although people have long abused power for sex, sextortion has occupied a blindspot in anti-corruption and gender equality matters. It was only when women judges shared their concern about sexual abuse occurring with impunity, that the global pattern was identified and labelled as sextortion. Ms Hendry spoke of the importance of giving sextortion a label and with it visibility. For example, case studies showed that in Tanzania, where sextortion exists as a concept due to the work of Tanzanian women judges, there were tools to work against its normalisation. In Colombia, however, the absence of sextortion as a concept had led to its invisibility and consequent negative statistics. This work showed the impact women judges can have when they use their position to shine lights on blindspots and injustices.

Judge McKeown spoke of how the judiciary was not immune from the #MeToo movement. Harassment within the judiciary is a worldwide problem, with countless examples across the world. The Judge said the hierarchical institution of the judiciary is particularly ripe with risk factors for harassment, with the most salient factor being the power disparity between judges and judicial staff (for example, clerks). Additional factors included the fact that judges often work alone or in very small groups and the decentralised nature of the judicial institution. Judge McKeown was involved in conducting a comprehensive review of workplace practices and policies following stories of sexual harassment in her Court. She spoke of the work her team had done in this respect, including creating a national office of judicial integrity so court employees have an independent person to report to who is not their judge or supervisor. The Judge said the #MeToo movement is an opportunity for women judges to step forward in leadership roles – women judges have credibility on this topic and an understanding of the realities of harassment, with many having been subject to harassment themselves. It is also an opportunity for women judges to bring their male colleagues along with them so the court, and judicial institution as a whole, works towards a shared vision for a safe workplace.


Reported by Maddy Nash and Taz Haradasa