Women around the world have a harder time accessing justice than men, as a result of global income imbalances along gender lines, and limits to women’s influence in business, government and society. Despite significant progress, 49 countries still lack laws protecting women from domestic violence, while 39 bar equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons. Harmful practices, such as child marriage, steal the childhood of 15 million girls under age 18 every year.

While more women have entered political positions in recent years they still hold a mere 23.7 per cent of parliamentary seats, far short of parity. In the private sector, women globally occupy less than a third of senior and middle management positions  To rectify this situation, we need to raise awareness of the benefits of equality, change discriminatory laws and adopt new legislation.

Furthermore, underlying cultural, social and economic obstacles must be identified and addressed, to make it easier for women to resolve problems they face through legal means. With this commitment in place, the next step would be to define the exact nature of these barriers and consider the best ways to remove them. Ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere is the fifth of 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by all 193 Member States of the United Nations, and provides the framework for our work at the UN Development Programme.

Ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right, it’s crucial for global prosperity, and a sustainable future. There is plenty of evidence proving that empowering women and girls spurs economic growth and development. It is for this reason that UNDP has made gender equality central to its work.

The Government of Uzbekistan is committed this goal and has made considerable legislative commitments to improve women and girls’ access to justice, such as through establishing new laws to protect gender equality, and curtail harassment and gender-based violence.

General problems and specific concerns

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges women face in protecting their rights and interests, both in Uzbekistan and around the world.  Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports show that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.  According to UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, calls to helplines increased up to five-fold in some countries during the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.  Projections show that for every three months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million women are expected to be affected by violence.

The nationwide quarantine in Uzbekistan has illuminated some of the barriers faced by women in rural areas when seeking legal assistance. These include the often long distances from homes to courts, the costs of travel and legal fees, the need to find someone to care for children or elders, and also instances when a perpetrator prevents a victim from seeking justice.

The E-court system launched by the ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project implemented by UNDP, USAID and the national Supreme Court, has done much to give women (and people in general) greater access to justice. This system has proven particularly important during the on-going pandemic, but like other digital tools, it is not always reliable in rural areas.

The Government of Uzbekistan introduced four indicators measuring the barriers to justice that women face, out of 52 indicators regarding general gender indicators. These four include the number of women judges, the number of women in law enforcement professions, the number of women victims of intimate partner violence, and the number of women victims of violence committed by persons other than intimate partners.

The Rule of Law project has introduced 23 additional indicators directly related to gender and the judiciary. Developing a strategy to apply more of these indicators, and forming a roadmap to ensure Uzbekistan’s court system more adequately supports the rights and interests of women, were objectives of the workshop on ‘The Role of Judges in Ensuring Gender Equality’ held on 18 September 2020.

Introducing sustainable solutions

While such indicators can be put in place, and their findings can be responded to accordingly, there are also several other broad approaches that could be applied to limit the barriers to justice that women face.

Learning about women’s unique experiences in different parts of the country may help with formulating effective, region-specific solutions. According to the project’s Annual Plan for 2021, a number of in-person or digital meetings are to be arranged between court staff and women throughout Uzbekistan, potentially with judges also in attendance.

With free legal aid currently available in Tashkent, there is the potential for this service to be expanded to other cities and to rural areas. Websites could be a convenient source of legal help, but must be designed in a way that gives women safe and discrete access. For example, a feature could be incorporated that allows for quick navigation away to a neutral page, such as a news portal, while also clearing the website from a browser’s history.

It may also be worth committing time and resources to developing additional non-digital channels for attaining legal advice, such as phone hotlines, while community-based services could be introduced once quarantine measures are lifted.

How to put these ideas, or ones like them, into practice

Throughout 2020 the ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project has investigated the obstacles women face in seeking justice, studied national and international experience in tackling these, and built commitment from partners to address them. There is a plan to put recommendations into action, to be implemented together with the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice, and other key players.

There is still plenty of work to be done to ensure women’s rights are better protected by the courts.

At UNDP, we have concluded that perhaps the most important way to improve access to justice for Uzbekistan’s women is to ensure gender parity in the national body of judges, which is a common objective for judiciaries in many countries.

There are two major benefits of having equal numbers of women and men in the judge profession:

-        Firstly, a greater number of women judges would help ensure that the needs of women and girls are better met by court decisions and outcomes.

-        Secondly, in cases that particularly involve women, such as those related to gender-based violence and alimony, women judges could provide critical psychological support to plaintiffs.

Our goal should be to create a society in which the rule of law benefits women and men equally. Women and girls should be able to have confidence that their rights and interests will be respected within Uzbekistan’s judiciary system.  The good news is the country is moving in that direction. 

 

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