The doors of Europe’s courts close in women’s faces every day. Why?
There are a multitude of obstacles: taboos, prejudices, stereotypes, customs, ignorance and even the laws themselves. Taken together, they are pieces in an enormous jigsaw which show just how difficult it can be for women to access justice.
Where should I begin? Women are more likely to live in poverty, a problem exacerbated by the current austerity measures which disproportionately affect them. They are therefore less likely to be able to pay court fees or even the travel costs to their nearest court. A woman may be denied legal aid because eligibility is calculated on the basis of the family’s overall income, which may be controlled by her partner, against whom she may be bringing her case in the first place.
In court, women’s testimonies are frequently given less weight. They face stigma, risk harassment and retaliation and may be required to meet higher standards of proof in sexual violence or human trafficking cases. In Europe, less than 14% of reported rapes end in a conviction and, in some countries, the rate is as low as 5%.
On the other hand, punishments for women can be disproportionately harsh. I think of the unmarried girl living in a rural area who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for murder, after carrying out an illegal abortion on herself. The case is now pending before our European Court of Human Rights.
Laws designed to fit the behaviour of male aggressors can discriminate against women. The relatively small number of female victims of domestic violence who kill their abusers are convicted of murder and consequently serve much longer sentences than their aggressor would serve for manslaughter.
In many justice systems female rape victims must be considered “deserving” to win a case; the outcome is compromised if they were drunk, on drugs, wearing revealing clothing, if they allowed their aggressor to kiss them or let him into their home, if he is their husband, if they are a prostitute… The list is long.
But even a girl in school uniform who has been raped may be stigmatised, denied access to an abortion, or be forced to negotiate with her rapist through mandatory alternative dispute resolution, which can be experienced as a second aggression.
It is noteworthy that women who fight to change the status quo run greater risks than male human rights defenders of receiving hate speech and death threats.
And, most cases concerning sex discrimination at the European Court of Human Rights have been brought by men, even though gender discrimination disproportionately affects women. Overall, far fewer women than men apply to the Court; roughly 16%, according to the only published research data. Applicants must have tried all possible legal remedies nationally before going to the Court, so this figure indicates the obstacles women face at national level.
Given that there is an equal number of male and female professional judges overall in Europe, it is also a startling fact that the majority of our 47 member states have a male Supreme Court President.
The root cause of these problems is the inequality between women and men in our societies and the resulting stereotypes and customs which subordinate women. Violence against women and the virtual impunity of many aggressors is a direct manifestation of this inequality.
What can be done? There is no one answer, because the jigsaw is so complex.
The Council of Europe is looking at solutions with experts from across Europe. We will be making recommendations to our member states, following a conference later this month, in Bern, on guaranteeing equal access to justice for women.
A top priority is for all our member states to ratify our ground-breaking “Istanbul Convention” on tackling violence against women as a matter of urgency; 29 have still to do so.
With just weeks to go before the next European Day of Justice, let’s join forces to make justice for all a reality.