Increasing Women's Access to Justice in Post-Conflict Societies

For centuries, sexual violence and other atrocities committed against women were considered inevitable during times of war. Today, legal frameworks and institutions are in place to provide justice to women affected by conflict and progress is being made.

In all situations of conflict, women are disproportionately affected by sexual and gender-based violence, forced displacement, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the range of rights violations. The legacy of this violence endures long after a peace agreement is signed.

In the past three decades, significant gains have been made in building an international justice architecture which includes accountability for sexual and gender-based crimes. The prosecution of these crimes serves as an important signalling of a break with the past, an assertion of the equal rights of women and an international willingness to protect these rights. For the first time in history, these significant advances have made it possible to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence in conflict.

However, much remains to be done. The rule of law still often rules out women. Obstacles that prevent women from accessing legal protection for their rights persist, resulting in discrimination and inequality that hamper their ability to live free of violence and contribute to society as full and equal citizens.

In the wake of fighting and destruction, institutions are only rudimentarily functioning, community networks are weakened, small arms proliferate and violence against women continues. The devastation of conflict exacerbates both the challenges and the impact of discrimination. As a result, women have the least access to justice precisely when they need it most.

The absence of a strong framework of laws to protect women's rights, backed by effective security and justice institutions to enforce these rights, has wide-ranging impacts. The 2011 World Development Report of the World Bank made important findings on the nexus among justice, security and development in conflict-affected States. The report noted that where the rule of law and justice are not secured, insecurity and violence continue and development is hampered. As some have noted, violent conflict, with its deaths, disease, destruction and displacement, is equal to "development in reverse".

Furthermore, this insecurity and violence, facilitated by a lack of justice or legal frameworks, effectively prevent women's participation in rebuilding their nations—in efforts for reconstruction, peacebuilding and development. Without security, women and girls will not engage in field-based farming or market activity, which is crucial for early recovery and family survival. Girls will not enrol in school. Women will not engage in public life. In short, without justice and security, societies impede the ability of half their population and human resources to contribute to development and peace.

One of the most significant measures of enabling women's participation is through the provision of reparations. As the 2007 Nairobi Declaration on Women's and Girls' Right to a Remedy and Reparation notes, "[justice and] reparations must go above and beyond the immediate reasons and consequences of crimes and violations; they must aim to address the political and structural inequalities that negatively shape women's and girls' lives". This is paramount because women are more than victims of conflict; they are leaders of peace, justice and democracy.

The post-conflict momentum presents unique opportunities for transformation. UN Women's report, "Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice", found that transitions following conflict present not only important opportunities to address injustices faced by women during times of war, but also a chance to transform underlying inequalities and gender-based discrimination through the new constitutions, legislative reforms and institution-building put in place.

Research shows that restoring basic services, such as education and health care, is vital to women's ability to access justice. To move this forward, the United Nations advocates prioritizing women's security in rule of law initiatives and creating a protective environment for women. Key to success is the provision of support for women's access to justice and law enforcement institutions, and the application of gender expertise and guidance to the formulation of truth commissions, reparations programmes and other transitional justice mechanisms. Also of critical importance are economic recovery programmes that prioritize women's involvement in employment creation schemes, community development programmes and delivery of front-line services. This commitment is outlined in the 2010 Report of the Secretary-General "Women's Participation in Peacebuilding", and his 2011 report "Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict", which called for an increased focus on addressing the underlying economic and social issues that drive inequality.

Most recently, on 24 September 2012, the United Nations General Assembly held a High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law during which Member States adopted a Declaration reaffirming their commitment to the rule of law as a foundation to peace and security, development and respect for human rights. The Declaration recommitted States to "establishing appropriate legal and legislative frameworks to prevent and address all forms of discrimination and violence against women and to secure their empowerment and full access to justice".

Complementing the work of international criminal proceedings, UN Women continues to work towards extending the notion of gender justice to a much-needed focus on the victim. UN Women's approach envisions a comprehensive justice that includes the critical component of reparations, which are a victim's right under international law.

In order to strengthen the United Nations approach to women's access to justice post-conflict, UN Women is currently reviewing all programming and funding undertaken in this area. This landmark effort will contribute to placing the issue of women's access to justice at the centre of efforts made by the United Nations in promoting the rule of law in post-conflict societies.

It is important that all transitional justice measures—courts, truth commissions and reparations programmes—place women's needs at their core and further justice for women. UN Women works to ensure that every United Nations Commission of Inquiry has the investigative expertise on gender crimes needed to secure accountability. Most recently, these efforts have strengthened the likelihood that the International Criminal Court will prosecute these crimes in relation to the conflict in Libya. We have also supported truth commission processes in a range of contexts, for example in Kenya, the Solomon Islands and Sierra Leone, to promote women's access to justice.

In order to protect and share the wealth of experience accumulated within the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, we support the legacy and documentation of their work. As part of this endeavour, UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme facilitated a New York visit of the leadership of the Sierra Leone Special Court, comprised of women, to brief the Security Council on their work. Their contributions made it evident that these women were not only an important model of women's leadership in post-conflict decision-making but, more importantly, they created foundational international jurisprudence on gender-based crimes, and actively increased women's access to the court through their support for innovative gender-sensitive outreach programmes. These programmes are now replicated by other courts.

UN Women is moving forward by working with governments to support legal and institutional reforms, and training and building capacity of those responsible for delivering justice, including the police, lawyers and judges. We are also working to get more women serving on the front lines of justice.

In Liberia, UN Women supported women in the communities to become crucial players in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. This was done by facilitating the establishment of so-called Peace Huts that are based on traditional justice systems. At first, these Peace Huts focused on a "shedding the weight" process and counselled women who experienced grief and trauma, as well as supported ex-child soldiers after the civil war. Then, Peace Hut women began hearing cases, and these huts became a safe space where village women came together to mediate and resolve community disputes. This is where they gather to discuss matters that affect their daily lives, where the reconciliation and resolution of conflicts takes place and where women demand police action to end violence against women. It is also where rural women openly and safely discuss issues of inequality, take decisions on peace and security, and seek justice.

In Haiti, UN Women supports associations in helping female survivors of gender-based violence receive medical and legal care in rural areas. Broad sensitization campaigns and cooperation with local security committees led to less tolerance of violence against women in the community. These changes send a strong message to potential perpetrators. Men are now more hesitant to beat women because they are aware of the measures and laws in place and do not want to be punished or imprisoned.

In Kenya, we are supporting the Government to establish an association of women police officers to promote their role in law enforcement and security reform. This association will be a platform where policewomen can develop leadership skills, support one another and advance gender-sensitive policies and practices throughout the force.

We must further increase our support for paralegal centres and mobile courts in conflict-affected societies and improve comprehensive training on justice for gender-based crimes for all actors in the justice chain, from prosecutors to judicial investigators and public defenders. We must improve measures to ensure the protection of victims and witnesses and enhance women's participation so that they can benefit from transitional justice processes and reparations programmes.

Harnessing the potential of this moment and sustaining the required political will remains a challenge. It demands not only a greater emphasis on rule of law and justice, but a dedicated focus on justice for women. In peacebuilding settings, the focus of the support of the United Nations should, therefore, include three core elements: to secure justice and accountability for the crimes experienced by women in conflict; to rebuild national justice systems from the ground up, with women's participation, access and gender sensitivity as central components; and to link the judicial response to a broader and transformative notion of justice and equality for all.

Ultimately, the rule of law must empower individuals and further their participation in reconstructing their societies, so that all people have an opportunity to contribute and share in the dividends of peace and justice.