Women in Policy Making: Sabrina Mahtani

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Women in Policy Making: Sabrina Mahtani

Sabrina Mahtani

17 Oct 2019

5min min read
  • Women's rights

In the fourth edition of our series focused on leading ‘Women in Policy Making’, (See Part I, Part II, and Part III) Sabrina Mahtani, a Zambian and British lawyer who serves as a Policy Advisor to The Elders, reflects on gender equality and the importance of access to justice for women in Africa. The following essay has been written in a personal capacity. 

No country in the world is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030, the date set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 5, the standalone goal to end gender inequality and empower women, contains specific targets, such as eliminating all forms of violence against women and ending child marriage. SDG 16.3 promises to ensure equal access to justice for all. However, the inaugural SDG Gender Index of 2019 found that 2.8 billion women and girls currently live in countries that are not doing enough to improve women’s lives. 

African states dominate the bottom of this index, with Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, being the top ten worst performing countries. While the Index does note that countries have had “different starting points”, achievement of these goals looks far off. 

"Access to justice is the thread that binds all of the SDGs and without further prioritisation and investment we risk failing to achieve the other goals."

Access to justice for women remains a key barrier to attaining gender equality. A recent report on Justice for Women found that for too many women gaps persist between the promise of justice and every day realities on the ground. Women face legal discrimination on paper and in practice, patchy legal protections and uneven implementation of safeguards. Poor and marginalised women experience more frequent and complex interrelated legal problems.

Justice problems pervade various aspects of women’s lives from intimate partner violence, discrimination against women at work and exclusion of women from decision-making. The statistics are sobering.  In 2017, more than one billion women worldwide lacked protection from sexual violence by an intimate partner. One in three countries do not have laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work. Nearly half of countries in Africa reported a prevalence of over 40% of physical violence against women. Only 24 percent of constitutional court justices globally were women, with the Middle East and North Africa region having the fewest (only 1 in 20).

Gender inequalities, such as violence against women, are not only grave human rights abuses but have a significant impact on the economy, indicating a strong case to invest in justice for women.  The output losses associated with current levels of gender discrimination are estimated at up to $12 trillion, or 16% of global GDP. A recent study in Ghana, for example, found that four out of ten Ghanaian women who were in a relationship experienced intimate partner violence.  The national loss in productivity in Ghana through missing work and/or being less productive at work due to violence against women and girls was approximately 65 million days annually, equivalent to 4.5% of employed women in effect not working. Taking into account only the time missed in paid work, households across Ghana lost nearly USD 286 million annually in income due to violence against women and girls in the last year.

The above paints a bleak picture and a seemingly impenetrable policy environment. However, whilst there is much to be done and a need for greater urgency, there is much progress to celebrate. 

African countries are making better progress in some areas than wealthier nations, such as on proportions of women in government. Rwanda (61%), Namibia (46%), South Africa (42%), and Senegal (42%) all rank in the top ten countries in the SDG Gender Index in terms of women in parliament. There are also growing numbers of women obtaining key roles in the justice system. In 2018, Sierra Leone appointed its first female Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Dr Priscilla Schwartz, and Ethiopia appointed prominent human rights lawyer, Meaza Ashenafi, as President of the Supreme Court.

Women’s movements are pushing forward important legislation to enhance women’s access to justice and protection from violence at the national and regional level. Feminist movements are the biggest driver of progressive policy level change on violence against women. As of 2017, 52.8% of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have laws against domestic violence. The Maputo Protocol has been ratified by 37 African countries and expands the international definitions to include economic violence and recognise violence against women in the family, at work, in the community and in conflict settings. The Maputo Protocol is also being used to hold governments to account. In 2017, the ECOWAS Court pronounced its first judgment on the Protocol, holding that Nigeria had violated its provisions when three women were abducted and assaulted by government agencies after being arrested and accused of being prostitutes simply on the grounds that they were found on the streets at night.

Women lawyers and community based paralegals across Africa are helping women to enforce laws through legal empowerment strategies, such as legal education, legal advice and supporting women to access the courts. For example, the Centre for Community Justice and Development in South Africa helps women with their day to day justice problems, such as domestic violence, child maintenance or labour issues.  AdvocAid in Sierra Leone has overturned convictions of women on death row. Paralegals in Mozambique assist women to give birth in hospitals by addressing barriers in accessing health care, such as women being charged bribes.

"We need to have more confidence to assert ourselves, especially in global policy spaces that are still largely male dominated and not diverse."

Ambitious action is needed to build upon these gains in order to meet the 2030 target in ten years. Critically, grassroots justice advocates need resourcing and protection. Funding for access to justice has declined by 40% in the last four years and many activists face a clamp down on civic space or backlash due to their activism. 

Funding agreements that position women’s organisations as implementing partners - rather than thought and practice leaders - can undermine organisational autonomy and weaken the activist edge of feminist movements. Actions, including temporary special measures, are needed to ensure that women are equally represented in the justice sector, such as judges, prosecutors, lawyers and law enforcement officers, as well as in decision making at the national, regional and local level.

Access to justice is the thread that binds all of the SDGs and without further prioritisation and investment we risk failing to achieve the other goals. We need more African women working at all levels: community, national, regional and global. We need to work together across countries, regions, language groups and specialisms. We need individual as well as collective action. We need to do what we can to include and provide a platform to women from diverse backgrounds, especially those on the margins. Those of us within the system need to make space for others and to provide mentoring and support for younger women. We need to have more confidence to assert ourselves, especially in global policy spaces that are still largely male dominated and not diverse. But we must not lose sight of the importance of supporting work at the grassroots level. We need to do more to ensure that access to justice for women is a right and not seen as a luxury or secondary to other rights for women, such as health care or education. 

As Selome Tadesse, the first woman to head the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency said in an interview about the appointment of the first female Chief Justice, “The door is cracked open now. We have to pull it open the rest of the way”.

(Main image: Sabrina Mahtani at the World Justice Forum 2019)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.