What can the COVID-19 crisis teach us about building gender-sensitive justice systems?

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Statue of Lady Justice in library
Statue of Lady Justice in library. Proxima Studio/ Shutterstock.com

More and more evidence is emerging on the risks that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on women’s economic and financial security. Not only are female-dominated sectors heavily affected by the crisis, but women are usually the ones to leave the labor force to take care of children when kindergartens are closed, or when remote schooling calls for additional supervision. And financial setbacks are just a fraction of a larger net of legal hurdles and discriminatory practices. What about existing restrictions on women’s property rights? And what about the financial strain mothers face when they cannot obtain the alimony payment urgently needed to support their children?

Women report legal issues at a substantially higher rate than men in the areas of social welfare, family, and children. In many countries around the world, court lockdowns and reduced staffing have made it more difficult for women to claim their rights to alimony, inheritance, and child custody, and to obtain a protection order or divorce. To understand government responses safeguarding women’s rights during the COVID-19 crisis, Women, Business and the Law recently published new data on access to family and civil courts.

The good news is that judicial systems came up with innovative ways to enable women to access justice. At least 72 economies introduced measures to declare family cases as urgent or essential during lockdown. For example, although courts in Japan limited their activities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the spring of 2020, the Tokyo Family Court announced that urgent family cases, including child custody cases, would be processed as usual.

Judicial systems around the world with innovative ways to enable women to access justice

Source: Women, Business and the Law database.

Overall, the pandemic has emphasized the need for courts to provide digital services. According to Women, Business and the Law data, 88 economies across all regions allow family law matters to be conducted virtually and another 26 economies have at least some measure in place for remote court access. The crisis has accelerated the adoption of such measures. Of the 190 economies analyzed, at least 79 (or 42%) introduced laws or policies on remote access to justice as a response to COVID-19. For example, in May 2020, the Lagos judiciary in Nigeria approved hearings via electronic platforms such as Skype or Zoom for urgent cases related to divorce proceedings and child custody cases. Similarly, the Supreme Court of India issued guidelines on videoconferencing in matters related to family law (among others) in April 2020, and high courts throughout the country followed suit.

These are promising developments, along with reports that online courts make justice delivery “more transparent, more accessible, and more convenient.” But while new technologies and mobile services are critical in safeguarding women’s rights, policy makers must not forget about the digital divide. Worldwide, there is a 10 percentage point gender gap between men and women who are using the internet– and this is particularly prevalent in low-income countries.

We must also not forget existing gender inequalities that threaten women’s economic and financial security. Nearly 40% of economies worldwide limit women’s property rights. Reform efforts should continue full speed ahead, despite the crisis that threatens to slow down the progress towards extending equal access to assets and inheritance for women.

We need a joint effort of global policymakers, civil society, and the private sector to ensure that international commitments on gender equality and access to justice for all are met. For example, our global partner Advocates for International Development (A4ID) is calling on law firms to support these goals through pro bono work, advocacy, and community involvement.

As political leaders around the world discuss feminist responses to the COVID-19 crisis next week at the virtual Generation Equality Forum, we urge them to consider the digital divide, push to reform discriminatory laws, and support gender-inclusive justice systems.

Register to attend the online Generation Equality Forum until Sunday, June 27. Registration is free and provides access to all meetings, speeches, and events featuring global leaders and activists.

Authors

Julia Braunmiller

Private Sector Development Specialist, World Bank Group

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