In a new report from the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), UN Women, and a collection of sponsors and contributors, the combined crises of women’s justice and COVID-19 come to light.
In Justice for Women Amidst COVID-19, Jeni Klugman of the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security investigates the difficulties women face in seeking justice–difficulties that have been exacerbated, sometimes with disastrous consequences, due to COVID-19.
Drawing on a women’s justice landscape outlined in a 2019 report from the same team (Justice for Women), this new report examines the multiple dimensions of the COVID-19 catastrophe. Common themes in fighting the pandemic–country-wide stay-at-home orders, mass layoffs, closure of businesses that employ low-wage workers–align with troubling themes in women’s justice, such as a rise in intimate partner violence (IPV), lack of access to information via mobile phones and the Internet, and discrimination (both inherent and supposed) against women around the world.
“Without decisive action, the meagre progress we have made on women’s rights and gender equality over the past decades will be undermined,” says Liv Tørres, Director of Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. “The justice gap for women is growing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We see an increase in the number of justice problems that women face, due to lockdowns and economic hardship. Simultaneously, the capacity to resolve these justice problems is decreasing. The pandemic is making our gender disparities abundantly clear, reinforces them but also shows us how they can be rectified by policy action. This report is a call for action.”
Among the report’s calls to action, the report names ten policy recommendations to “safeguard women’s right to access justice during this crisis”:
- Recalibrate justice delivery, by ensuring critical justice businesses stay open and continue to serve women who need resources.
- Protect rights holders and duty bearers by providing access to safe spaces and hotlines, as well as protective legislation for victims of domestic violence (and aggressive legislation against perpetrators).
- Substitute full trials with interim orders, such as protective and restraining orders, custody decrees, moratoriums on widow evictions, and child marriage protections.
- Protect women deprived of their liberty by improving conditions in corrective systems, such as creating early release programs and medical protection programs for women at high risk of developing COVID-19.
- Keep the repeal of discriminatory laws on track (as some repeals have halted due to the closure of justice systems around the world).
- Include women as decision makers by supporting remote work for female judges, politicians, legislators, and officers of the peace.
- Partner with customary and informal justice systems to fill the gap between women and justice programs, particularly during the pandemic.
- Address the digital divide and explore alternatives, by understanding that not every woman has access to a cell phone and finding alternative methods of communication.
- Sharpen the “leave no one behind” agenda by overcoming legal disadvantages for poor and marginalized women (lack of identification, lack of healthcare, etc.).
- Invest in data, monitoring, and evidence-based policies to make sure that decisions being made are as informed as possible.
These recommendations form the basic structure of the report, and constantly call back to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 5 on gender equality and 16 on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.
Ultimately, the report makes an important plea: We cannot forget about women’s justice in the midst of the pandemic. Communities that are already disadvantaged when it comes to the world’s justice systems–women, people of color, low-wage workers, undocumented migrants–are facing even more of a hurdle when it comes to accessing these resources in the midst of a pandemic.
Furthermore, state and nation governments that are already stretched too thin in their pandemic responses may be cutting women’s justice programs, simply because they believe women’s justice is a low-priority option when compared to more immediate problems. However, the rise of intimate partner violence cases, maternal deaths, stillborn babies, and unjust legal decisions presents a very real problem that we cannot ignore.
The authors of the report frequently acknowledge that the limited amount of time and resources devoted to this study mean that the statistics collected are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Most domestic violence cases are not reported, so the spikes that we see in countries like Italy and Spain likely only reflect a small percentage of the real increase happening in the world.
To address this information gap, the authors of the report draw on case comparisons to previous pandemics, like Ebola and HIV/AIDS. In previous cases, infant and maternal mortality rates, the prevalence of gender-based violence, and reports of intimate partner violence all skyrocketed. In some cases, like the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, the troubling statistics that shot up so sharply did not recover to their previous levels in the following years.
What this report makes clear is that we have a larger problem on our hands than just this pandemic. COVID-19 has decimated the global economy, our mental health, and our safety nets, for those of us who were lucky enough to have them.
As the pandemic continues to take center stage, we cannot afford to leave women’s justice behind. Government aid programs must take into account measures to protect women and safeguard their access to justice systems. Meanwhile, donors can make a major difference by supporting women’s justice organizations, like those that support women deprived of their liberty, the undocumented, and women around the world who do not have access to information sources via cell phones or the Internet.
The best way to start is by reading the full report, available for free on IDLO’s website.
Women’s access to justice is not a new problem, but the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 make it more of a pressing issue–and potential catastrophe–than ever before. We must fund research into and support for women’s access to justice programs, and not let this issue fall by the wayside in the face of the pandemic.
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