The Strauss-Kahn case illustrates once again the serious obstacles that women around the world face in getting justice.

For the first time, a woman now heads the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and also for the first time, Thailand has a woman Prime Minister. Women are making news all the time — either because they have done something no other woman has done before or because they are caught in the net of unfriendly judicial systems like millions of their counterparts around the world. Women like the hotel maid in New York who accused the powerful former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault.

This high profile case is now close to collapse. As in so many lesser-known cases around the world, the woman's credibility is being questioned rather than the man's character. Instead of the evidence being used to indict the man, the woman's past record of inconsistency is being used to prove her a liar. And because she is supposed to have lied in the past, there is a presumption that she might be doing so again. Yet, although the man has been accused of similar behaviour in the past, it is not being presumed that he could have behaved the same way again. Instead, he is being given the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because he is powerful and the woman is not.

Much will be written about this case in the weeks and months to come but what it draws attention to is the justice system in all our countries and how it works, or rather does not work, for women. It is significant that in its very first report on “Progress of the World's Women 2011-12” brought out by the newly established UN Women, the theme is, “In pursuit of justice”.

For better justice

The report looks at how justice systems can be made to work for women and sets out examples and suggestions. From the data it puts forth, it is evident that in many countries there are serious obstacles in the way of women getting justice.

Where laws have been changed — such as the introduction of a particular law on domestic violence — a difference has been noted. More cases are reported as women understand they need not be silent and bear abuse. Yet, attitudes do not change overnight when such laws are introduced. For instance, according to the report, in 17 out of 41 countries surveyed, a quarter or more of the respondents thought it was perfectly alright for a man to beat his wife. So between this attitude, and a law against domestic violence, lies the challenge of implementation. And it is here that an indifferent judicial system often fails women.

“All over the world,” notes the report, “the justice chain is characterised by high levels of attrition, whereby most cases drop out of the justice system before they reach court and very few result in a conviction. Attrition is a particular problem in rape cases.” Even in European countries, where you would imagine that this would not be the case, the picture is not that different. “A 2009 study of European countries found that, on average, 14 per cent of reported rapes ended in a conviction, with rates falling as low as five per cent.”

Accessing the justice system is not a simple matter. It starts with reporting a case to the police but then is followed by investigation, legal help, facing the court, and the wait for justice. Most women do not have either the resilience or the support system to fight till the end. The majority gives up at the very first stage, which is at the point of reporting.

In many countries, especially developing countries, even if laws have been enacted that should aid women, the police are not trained to be sensitive to women, or in some places simply do not have the resources. In Uganda, for instance, if a woman goes to the police and reports domestic violence, she is asked to pay for the transport to arrest the suspect! In Cambodia, rape victims are asked to pay for the forensic tests, an amount that is equivalent to what they would earn in two weeks.

Leading the way

Several countries have pioneered solutions to this by providing integrated services. South Africa has a pioneered the Thuthuzela or “comfort” centres located in public hospitals. Here a survivor of sexual assault is given medical help and legal advice and has social workers, doctors and police on call for 24 hours. This has made a marked difference to rates of reporting and conviction. From an average of two years for a trial, the average is now down to seven and a half months and the conviction rate has gone up to 89 per cent.

The UN report makes a strong case for employing more women in the justice system so that the entire process is more sensitive to women's needs. One example of the positive impact of this is the 130-strong Indian women's police contingent in post-conflict Liberia. Reporting of gender-based violence increased because of the presence of these women, states the report.

Yet, worldwide, women make up not more than 13 per cent of the police force and only 27 per cent of judges around the world are women. The report argues that even if gender-sensitive training were imparted to everyone in the system, the presence of more women would make a material difference to the lives of the women seeking justice.

The complex justice systems in all our countries cannot be reduced to a few simple solutions. There are several simultaneous areas that need to be tackled. But sometimes the simplest solutions can make a maximum difference. The South African example, of one-stop shops to deal with sexual violence, is one such step that has already shown results. It does not require the creation of additional institutions. It means using those that already exist, such as public hospitals, and evolving systems that respond to women's needs instead of exacerbating their burdens.

Women's progress can be measured in many ways. The media usually cites the ‘success' stories — of the women who have ‘ made it' to the top in different fields. These are indicators no doubt. But the real measure of women's progress lies in the ability of our societies to deliver justice. And on this measure most countries, rich and poor, fall short.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com