Remarks at the Justice Sector Training, Research and Coordination (JusTRAC) Symposium

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
United States Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
May 1, 2015

As prepared

Thank you, Kathleen, for that kind introduction. And thanks to USIP for hosting what is sure to be a terrific event today—one of just many this Institute hosts regularly. To the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina, thank you for bringing together so many different groups to discuss this important issue. I’d also like to thank my colleagues in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs for their tremendous leadership. They are great partners and champions for gender equality and women’s empowerment at the State Department.

In my position, I see the range of challenges facing women around the world, and what’s clear is that we won’t get very far in addressing these challenges if we go about it in a piecemeal fashion. We will only see real and lasting progress for gender equality if we approach this issue in a comprehensive way.

That means girls and women need access to health care, education, and economic opportunities. We need to challenges cultural values around women. We need police officers, doctors, and lawyers to be properly trained to respond to issues like gender-based violence. And we need laws—and systems supporting those laws—that give women and girls equal access to justice.

These are key pieces of the puzzle. So today, as we talk about mixed legal systems and what they mean for women, keep in mind that this is one of several components in an effort to achieve true gender equality. So let’s start by looking at what happens when women do have access to justice—when a system can and does work for them.

In 1994, there were an estimated 2.1 million incidences of intimate partner violence here in the United States. That year Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. This landmark piece of legislation dramatically improved federal, state, and local responses to domestic violence. And it helped establish that violence against women was not a private family matter, but a criminal one.

By 2010—sixteen years after VAWA passed—intimate partner violence dropped by more than 1 million incidences. Now clearly, we still have work to do—no country has eliminated gender-based violence, and the United States is no exception. But the progress we’ve seen here makes one thing clear: laws can be powerful tools to protect and empower women.

But as we all know, it takes more than just laws. Women’s leadership and participation are also critically important for advancing justice. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that diversity in experience can help inform sound legal judgments. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. When a judiciary represents diverse perspectives, that diversity will make for stronger decisions—ones that are reflective not just of some people, but all people in society. For example, we’ve seen more women enter the legal sector here in the United States. And as their numbers have grown, so has the understanding of issues like harassment and discrimination.

These are some bright spots as we look at the law and women’s empowerment. But there are many cases that offer different stories—stories that make clear that women don’t enjoy in practice the rights they have on paper.

Let’s look at a global example. It’s illegal to sell acid without a license in India. That regulation is thanks to the efforts of a young woman named Laxmi, who received the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award last year. When Laxmi was 16, a friend’s brother tried to date her. Laxmi turned him down. Later, she was waiting at a bus stop when he threw acid on her face as revenge. She was permanently disfigured.

Laxmi is an inspiring, truly amazing woman. She didn’t hide or live quietly after this man tried to destroy her life. Instead she pursued her own path to justice by advocating to restrict the sale of acid. The new regulation she fought for should have been as valuable to her—and to other women living in fear of acid violence—as the Violence Against Women Act is to many activists and survivors here in the United States. But as of late last year, very few states in India had implemented the restrictions on acid sales. And they weren’t providing the mandatory compensation to survivors either. Today you can still walk into a store and buy a liter of acid for less than a few pennies.

India is just one example. The rest of the world—including the United States—also has a long way to go. High levels of impunity for gender-based violence can be found around the world, reinforcing cycles of violence, discrimination, and instability. And gender-based violence is just one issue, one example of the many ways justice systems let women down. From property and inheritance laws to biased judges and prosecutors, often the system doesn’t protect women. And it doesn’t empower them either.

So we’re here today because we know that legal systems—customary, mixed, or exclusively formal—often don’t work for women. But we also know that justice—when it does works—lays the foundation for women to fully participate in society.

Which brings me to an important point: We need to empower women in whatever way we can today. But we also must work for the change we envision for tomorrow. And there are three things that can help us do this effectively.

First, we need to be persistent. Legal systems—formal or not—don’t change overnight. It takes time, and we have to continue to push for change. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan, where women and their allies worked hard to advocate for the Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women. The passage of the law by presidential decree in 2009 was a huge victory—and a much-needed legal protection of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. But while the law offers a legal framework, implementation has moved slowly. Women still face endemic violence and barriers in fully pursuing justice in their cases.

The good news is that the Government of Afghanistan has publicly committed to ensuring the law is implemented as envisioned. That’s a critical step. But there’s more to be done, from raising awareness among men and women to strengthening implementation around the law. And it will take everyone to make it happen—the international community, civil society, the justice sector, and the security sector all working at the local, provincial, and national levels.

So reforming legal systems is an important tool to empower women—one we can’t ignore in this conversation. But it won’t be easy, and it will take our long-term commitment.

Second, we need to focus on local solutions. The problems facing women around the world are complex and deeply rooted in cultural norms. Women’s participation—in any and every part of society—is far from equal to their status as 50 percent of the population. Often this is because of entrenched issues like discrimination, gender-based violence, or a lack of education for adolescent girls.

There’s no easy or quick solution to these problems. If we’re going to make real, lasting progress, we have to be smart and creative as we approach solutions on the ground.

The good news is that this is already happening. For example, in the DRC the State Department funds mobile courts that work to bring justice to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, even in the most rural parts of the DRC. By increasing the reach of the criminal judicial system, these efforts are eroding impunity and encouraging confidence in the law.

But we’re not only working within the formal system. We’re also supporting creative solutions to expand access to the traditional justice system. USAID is working at the grassroots level to empower women in local councils in eastern DRC. These councils are a critical force for stability and justice. They settle border disputes and establish water, sanitation, and hygiene programs. They mediate cases of gender-based violence and encourage birth and marriage registrations.

The impact on gender equality is also clear. Today there is more shared household management, more equality of gender roles, and a noticeable reduction in physical violence. This is true in other parts of the world. Empowering women to promote progressive change from within traditional justice systems has improved Pashtun Jirgas and similar local councils from Bangladesh to Burundi.

So we’re seeing change within both the formal and the traditional judicial systems. And I think it’s clear how powerful this innovative, two-track approach really is, because it’s not only enabling access to justice for women. It’s also helping to build the infrastructure needed so that both sectors co-exist in harmony.

The third and final point I want to make is that we need to trust women. Around the world, we have seen that women are justice savvy – they often know which system will better address their needs. And so we have to be sensitive to their perceptions of justice and their preferences for seeking it through customary means. If allowed, women will choose the system that suits them best. And if they’re confident in that system, we’ll see a stronger foundation for stability, rule of law, and representative governance.

But just as we should trust women to choose the systems that work for them, we should also trust women to be powerful players in those systems. Earlier this year, I met Tabassum Adnan. She received the 2015 Secretary’s International Women of Courage Award in large part because she started a women-only Jirga in the Swat Valley. Her council meets every week to address issues that matter to women in the community. And Tabassum is well respected in this traditional forum—so much so that she was invited to join the Grand Male Jirga to prosecute suspects in a child rape case.

Tabassum is one of countless women who are powerful leaders for change in the various legal systems around the world. And she reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with a mixed legal system—so long as it respects and makes room for women like Tabassum to be a part of it. No matter what kind of forum it is, any system that values women’s leadership, their participation, and their perspectives is going to bring the world closer to full gender equality.

I’m glad to be in a room with so many dedicated people who not only understand this, but are working to make it happen. So thank you for the work you do, and I wish you all the best at today’s symposium. Thank you.