Did you know there is an International Day of Women Judges? Well, if you don’t, you’re excused – it was only last year, in 2022, that the UN introduced this global celebration on March 10. This day calls attention to the need for gender equality, inclusivity, and respect for human rights in judiciary systems everywhere.
Working in Colombia with women victims of horrible human rights abuses and violence in their own homes, workplaces and communities, I had a glimpse into the reality of shaky and exclusive justice systems. Sadly, access and equality before the law exist mainly on paper in many parts of the world. So, these women were scared and intimidated by the institutions that should be the guardians of their human rights.
Female victims bullied by police officers
More often than not, they were belittled and bullied by male police officers who registered the crimes other men had committed against them. In courtrooms, they were exposed to humiliating examinations by male judges who did not have the slightest notion of what it means to be a female victim in a highly vulnerable, patriarchal context. The pro bono lawyers that defended them to the best of their capabilities were often under serious threat themselves.
That’s why the newly introduced Day of Women Judges is so significant.
Of course, the presence of female judges in itself does not fix broken systems. But it helps to solve an important piece of the puzzle. Women’s representation in the judiciary sends a powerful signal that these judicial institutions reflect the gender distribution in society and are accessible to citizens, men and women alike.
Underrepresented in judicial leadership positions
Although female participation in the judiciary is increasing, women are still underrepresented. And in some countries, they are completely excluded from the judiciary for religious or cultural reasons, or because local traditions prevent them from participating in public roles.
Even in Europe, where more women than men are judges or magistrates in most countries, women represent 41 per cent of the judges in national supreme courts and only 25 per cent of court presidents. As in many economic sectors, women’s progress into senior judicial leadership positions is slow in countries across the globe.
This is mainly due to male-dominated corporate culture and working conditions that are not up-to-date to accommodate women. Often, women judges face additional barriers.
Criticized for being too harsh
In countries where tradition, religion, or culture limit access to public positions for women, making a career in judicial institutions is particularly hard. Here, women judges often face physical or psychological pressure and even threats while they step out of the usual behind-the-scenes role assigned to them.
And, as Justice Renate Winter, an international judge at the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone points out, doing the right thing is difficult. If these women judges decide a case favorably towards a woman, they are often stigmatized for being biased and weak. In other cases, they are criticized for behaving too harshly if they try to come over equally strong or stronger than their male colleagues.
Role models for girls
“Happy is the country that has female and male judges, equally protected by constitutionally granted independence without any need for heroism or bravery,” Judge Renate Winter concludes.
Until then, let’s spotlight women judges around the world and give them a shoutout on their special day. Let them be role models for young girls growing up and female law students, so they will join their ranks and bring inclusion and equality among the guardians of our human rights a step closer.
Will my girl Nina be one of them? She was definitely impressed by our visit to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, October 2022 (photo)
Find more awareness days and green & social events on the (free!) FairChange People & Planet Calendar 2023. Download it here
What is the International Day of Women Judges and why was it proclaimed? https://www.un.org/en/observances/women-judges-day
The Global Judicial Integrity Network of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) brings together female judges for solidarity and learning: https://www.unodc.org/dohadeclaration/en/news/2021/04/progress-towards-parity-the-representation-of-women-in-the-judiciary.html
The International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) supports and empowers its global network of women judges to advance gender equality and human rights: https://iawj.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=882224&module_id=475379
Working towards a legal system reflective of society, with statistics about women in the Judiciary: https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/women-in-the-judiciary-working-towards-a-legal-system-reflective-of-society.htm
Justice Renate Winter, international judge at the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone, about the difficulties some women judges face: https://www.unodc.org/dohadeclaration/en/news/2021/22/corruption-and-threats-as-a-challenge-to-judicial-integrity-of-women-judges.html