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Justice delayed is justice denied

By Julie McKay - posted Friday, 8 July 2011

Justice delayed is justice denied is a commonly used mantra among human rights advocates around the world. The message behind this may appear to be quite obvious and seem more like a slogan than the truth, however, a new report by UN Women reveals just how complex and out of reach justice is for the majority of the world's women.

UN Women is the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice is UN Women's first major report, following the agency's launch in early 2011.

The report touches on a broad yet pivotal topic that relates to every man and woman around the world - justice. But what exactly is justice? Women have a range of perceptions about justice which are often closely linked to the injustice they see around them and experience on a daily basis. In every region of the world, there are laws that discriminate against women. While 125 countries have laws in place to outlaw domestic violence, there are still 600 million women and girls in 66 countries who are denied this basic protection and 50 countries have a lower minimum age of marriage for women than for men, exposing women to the risks of early pregnancy and childbirth, the biggest killer of girls aged 15 to 19 in the developing world.


Despite the existence of laws that are blatantly discriminatory against women, in 2009, major bilateral donors spent $4.2 billion on justice, of which just 5% specifically targeted women and girls. Over the past decade, the World Bank has spent $126 billion on public administration, law and justice, of which only $7.3 million was spent on gender equality and the rule of law. Legal reform that addresses gender inequality remains a vastly underfunded and under-prioritised aim.

Clearly, while the law is intended to be a neutral set of rules that help govern society, in all countries of the world, developed or developing – laws and legislation tend to reflect and reinforce the interests of the powerful whether on the basis of economic class, ethnicity, race, religion or in this case, gender.

The release of this report is timely given that it has coincided with the release of the independent review of the effectiveness of Australia's aid program over the last fifteen years. I welcome the announcement that gender will now make up one of the top six priorities of the aid program. This is reflective of AusAID's long history of addressing gender issues regionally and internationally, but now we are seeing a much more explicit and proactive approach to ensuring that gender remains a priority in all programs. A much needed shift in policy.

In terms of justice, in 2009, Australia allocated $1.38 million, or 1%, of its total justice aid to projects that has gender equality as their principal aim. According to the 2011-2012 foreign aid budget announcement a new governance sector was created in the AusAID budget entitled "civil society, justice and democracy". This new sector for budget funding coupled with the outcome of the aid review, leaves me hopeful of what the future of Australia's aid program may be with regards to addressing both issues of justice and gender.

While we wait for such shifts in funding to occur, what inspires me are the examples of how women have been actively seeking justice for themselves and their communities. For example, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) runs the largest NGO-led human rights and legal education program in the world, and has reached 3.5 million women. The Fiji Women's Crisis Centre provides free and confidential crisis counselling and legal advice, as well as referrals to courts, police stations and health care. It provides training for male leaders to challenge cultural and religious justification of violence against women.

Of course we must also look for practical and specific measures that states can take in their domestic and international efforts to ensure that women are not only able to access the formal justice system but to ensure that the justice system will respond to their gendered reality.


This means ensuring that legislation protects women from violence and inequality in the home and the workplace. We need to be putting women at the forefront of justice mechanisms such as taking up roles as judges, legislators and protecting the rights of women activists. It also means, supporting innovative justice services, including one-stop shops, legal aid and specialised courts, to ensure women can access the justice to which they are entitled.

More fundamentally, we must remember the ultimate aim expressed in the words of UN Women's first Executive Director and Under-Secretary General Michelle Bachelet who states that "full equality demands that women become men's true equals in the eyes of the law – in their home and working lives, and in the public sphere."

Until this time we need to continue to be vocal about the discriminatory realities of women's experiences and placement in the justice system. It is no longer acceptable for justice to be delayed nor for justice to be denied for the world's women.

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For more information about the Australian National Committee for UN Women and the Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice Report visit:

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About the Author

Julie McKay is Executive Director, Australian National Committee for UN Women.

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All articles by Julie McKay

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