Remarks at High Level Lunch on Women, Crime Prevention, Criminal Justice and the Post 2015 Development Agenda

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
New York, NY
September 30, 2015

As prepared

Thank you for that kind introduction. I’d also like to thank the Missions of Qatar, Italy, and Thailand, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for organizing this important event.

We’re here because we know that what’s good for women and girls is also good for countries and economies. By advancing gender equality, we take steps toward our ultimate goals of peace, prosperity, and security. And while the equation for gender equality has many variables—from education and health to legal reform and cultural change—there’s no doubt that criminal justice systems are a critical part of the solution. They provide a tremendous opening for the world to advance gender equality and strengthen access to justice for women and girls.

Today I’d like to share two important areas where criminal justice systems can effectively advance gender equality.

First, criminal justice systems can help prevent and respond to gender-based violence. One in three women around the world will experience gender-based violence. It’s a global pandemic that touches each and every one of our countries. In Pakistan, a girl is attacked with acid because her family member committed a crime. In Nigeria, a student is raped on her way home from school. In the United States, a woman experiences violence within her own home at the hands of an intimate partner.

Just over 20 years ago, in 1994, intimate partner violence was a fact of life for many women in the United States. An estimated 2.1 million incidences of intimate partner violence took place that year. But 1994 was also the year Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. This bill dramatically improved federal, state, and local responses to domestic violence. It launched training for first responders, police officers, prosecutors, and judges. And it helped firmly establish that violence against women is not a family matter. It’s a crime.

Sixteen years after that landmark legislation passed, incidences of intimate partner violence dropped by more than 1 million. So we know that progress is possible, and we continue to improve our criminal justice system to respond to gender-based violence. For example, in cities across the United States today, there is a growing backlog of rape kits. Evidence of potential crimes is being collected, but it isn’t tested. And this happens even though we know these kits are an important tool for the justice system. One study found that up to 50 percent of previously unsolved rape cases can be resolved when these kits are tested.

That’s why our Vice President and Attorney General recently announced $41 million in federal grants to 20 jurisdictions nationwide to test sexual assault kits. Their leadership sends a clear message about where we stand on these issues. We will support survivors, and we will bring to justice perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.

Sierra Leonne had a similar moment a few years ago. A large backlog of cases related to sexual and gender-based violence inspired what became known as the Saturday Courts. Every Saturday, three courts would come to order to solely focus on these cases. And within eight months, 700 cases related to sexual and gender based violence were cleared, and survivors were able to access the justice they deserved.

That’s the kind of achievable impact criminal justice systems can have. When workers in the criminal justice system are trained, when officials have the resources and support they need to follow through, we will see progress on gender-based violence. But the gender lens of criminal justice systems can’t solely focus on the protection of women. It also needs to focus on the empowerment and participation of women.

So the second action our countries can take within our criminal justice systems is to add women to the team. According to the UN Women’s report on global women and justice, women make up just 27 percent of the world’s judges, and only 9 percent of the world’s police. Cultural and structural barriers steer women away from criminal justice work. And that means women’s experiences with violence, with security forces, and with community leaders are largely missing from the criminal justice system.

But our experience shows this is worth changing. In the last 40 years, women’s representation in the legal sector has started to grow. And studies have tied the increase of women with an increase in understanding of issues like harassment and discrimination in legal settings. One study looked at cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. When male judges were on panels with female judges, they decided for the plaintiffs more than twice as often as those on all-male panels. That’s just one example of how women’s representation can strengthen institutions so that they’re more effective, more accountable, and more inclusive.

So how can we widen the pipeline for women in criminal justice? We can start by recruiting them. Workshops on careers in the justice sector, or trainings for police forces can and must include women. And if people try to tell you that there just aren’t any women interested, tell them to go back and look harder. Once we recruit women, we have to retain them. There are issues like work-life balance and stereotypes that can make it difficult for women in these fields. If we’re serious about women in criminal justice, we need to tackle these challenges too.

I’d like to end with a quote from President Obama. When he spoke earlier this year in Ethiopia, he talked about the U.S. commitment to gender equality and what it means for our work with the international community. He said: “If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women. And if you want to empower more women, America will be your partner.”

That’s the message I’d like to share with all of you. The United States wants to work with you to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. We want to work with you to get more women on the team. And we want to work with you to make sure the foundations of our workforce can support women’s participation and leadership.

I hope this event is an opportunity to launch some of that work.

Thank you.