Justice for women amidst COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global emergency of multiple dimensions. In the several weeks since the pandemic has exploded around the world, a multitude of repercussions are emerging – beyond the threats to life and health associated with the virus itself. The urgent need to contain and mitigate COVID-19 has brought unprecedented disruption to the ways that people live and work, with most countries having introduced some form of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines.

Prior to the COVID-19 global crisis, 2020 was expected to be a year for reviewing achievements and accelerating progress in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 25 years since its adoption and 20 years since adopting UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security.
There is now major concern that COVID-19 and its impact will push back fragile progress on gender equality, including slowing progress in reversing discriminatory laws, the enactment of new laws, the implementation of existing legislation and broader progress needed to achieving justice for all.

This rapid assessment builds on what we know about women’s existing justice needs as documented in an earlier Justice for Women report (2019). It examines the impacts of COVID-19, policy responses and outlines policy recommendations for the period ahead.

Using a gender lens, the report documents major threats to women’s lives and livelihoods associated with COVID-19 – namely, curtailed access to justice institutions, rising intimate partner violence (IPV), threats to women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, growing injustice for workers, discriminatory laws and lack of legal identity, as well as repercussions on forcibly displaced women and those deprived of their liberty.

An adequate response requires informed, as well as inclusive action. Around the world, innovative interventions are emerging on the parts of states and non-state actors, including efforts to:

  • Prevent and respond to Intimate Partner Violence.
    Multiple innovative platforms have emerged during the COVID crisis to prevent and respond to IPV. Some use existing programs, like WhatsApp, while others have developed new free applications or instant messaging. Some aim at raising awareness, while others are connected to emergency and support services. There is a range of innovative solutions to offer direct help to victims through helplines and emergency services that do not require cell phones and internet access. Some countries have also taken steps to ensure access to the courts through virtual means and continued protection through extension of judicial orders.

  • Address legal and other disadvantages for poor and marginalized women. A welcome innovation in this unique crisis is that several governments around the world are providing emergency assistance regardless of people’s previous entitlements. Therefore, while some women who were in informal employment or out of the workforce are normally at an enormous disadvantage in terms of benefits eligibility, they may be receiving benefits regardless of their former job status.

  • Support collective action of women and women’s organizations. Grassroots justice actors such as unions of informal sector workers, civil society justice defenders, community-based paralegals, public-interest lawyers, human rights activists, and other community leaders are playing active roles in many settings.
    Building on the Call to Action of the Justice for Women report and other sources, this report outlines ten policy recommendations to safeguard women’s right to access justice during this crisis:

  1. Recalibrate justice delivery: There is need to ensure that justice institutions are fully responsive to the rights and needs of all population groups during this period of crisis. One example can be drawn from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Guidance Note on “Ensuring Access to Justice in the Context of COVID-19”. The emphasis is on preparation, response, and recovery, through actions such as business continuity, establishing criteria for prioritization of cases, while addressing the gender justice gap by mainstreaming gender and designing targeted interventions for women.

  2. Rights holders and duty bearers must be protected. Encapsulating the recommendations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences and the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, this two-pronged solution includes attention to safe spaces, hotlines and instituting urgent judicial orders, especially for serious crimes such as domestic violence, as well as supporting justice staff to perform their duties.1

  3. Substitute full trials with interim orders: Interim orders can be used to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of women and children. Examples of relevant interim judicial orders include protection orders, restraining orders, orders for child maintenance and/or custody, injunctions against evicting widows and children from family or matrimonial accommodation and orders nullifying and/or preventing the marriage of a child.

  4. Protect women deprived of their liberty: Promote the use of non-custodial measures in appropriate cases and ensure the health and safety of women who need to stay in prison. To reduce overcrowding, pregnant women, women in prison with their children, pre-trial detainees, elderly women, those with underlying health conditions, those detained for low-risk offences and with less than 12 months to serve on their sentence should be released on a case by case basis, accompanied by effective economic recovery and social welfare services.2

  5. Keep the repeal of discriminatory laws on track: Efforts should be made to use appropriate technology and social distancing to continue parliamentary business related to repealing discriminatory laws,3 with emphasis on prioritizing those which can worsen the already existing precarious situation of women and girls as a result of the pandemic.
    Discriminatory laws or provisions which should be considered for immediate review and repeal during this period of COVID-19 include statutory provisions which sanction child marriage, laws which prevent women from passing on their nationality to their spouses and/or children and those which deprive widows and/or children of the right to inherit and protection from eviction and abuse.

  6. Include women as decision makers: Women judges, police, prosecutors, lawyers and legal aid providers, and associations of women working in the justice sector play an important role in shaping the justice for all agenda.4 It is therefore critical to boost levels of women’s participation in justice delivery to promote its transformational potential and the essence of equality before the law.

  7. Partner with customary and informal justice systems: Given the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the ability of formal courts to respond to women’s justice needs, more attention should be paid to enhancing the ability of customary and informal justice systems to fill the justice gap. IDLO’s forthcoming paper on “Navigating Complex Pathways to Justice: Women and Customary and Informal Justice” provides insights into methodologies for strategic engagement with such systems.5

  8. Address the digital divide and explore alternatives: While technology is playing a transformative role in women’s access to justice, a prior digital gender gap is deepening and manifesting as a cause and consequence of gender inequality. Addressing this will require policies and programmes that aim to make technology more accessible to poor women and ensuring alternative routes to access justice for those who are digitally excluded. Community based paralegal organizations play an important role in addressing these needs and gaps by broadening knowledge of law and recourse to justice among such women.

  9. Sharpen the leave no one behind agenda: Overcoming legal disadvantages for poor and marginalized women requires targeted legal empowerment policies and programs. Accessing legal aid can enable poor people to seek justice that would otherwise be out of reach.6 Such services should be advertised extensively – in public but also on TV, social media, public service announcements – so that women and their families know about them. This also suggests a strong role for women’s organizations, which are often part of strategic legal and justice networks in low and middle-income countries.

  10. Invest in data and monitoring and evidence-based policies: It is critical to ensure that relevant data is collected for purposes of informed decision-making. As underlined in a recent briefing of The Pathfinders on “Justice in a Pandemic”, this crisis is moving at lightning speed, and to be effective, justice leaders need timely access to relevant data and evidence on the extent to which all population groups are resolving their justice issues.7 Across the board, it is important to collect sex-disaggregated data to understand the social and economic as well as legal impacts of the pandemic on women and girls at national and sub-national levels.