"Words can reinforce harmful stereotypes or advance the cause of gender equality"

PATHWAYS TO JUSTICE – A conversation with Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh on addressing gender equality in the court.

April 2, 2024

In the pursuit of justice, the role of the judiciary stands as a cornerstone in upholding fundamental rights and ensuring access to justice for all. Gender equality within the courts is not merely a legal principle but a crucial aspect of promoting inclusivity for vulnerable groups and society at large. In this interview, we delve into the insights of Justice D. Singh, Associate Justice at the Supreme Court of the Philippines, to explore the challenges and path forward for fostering a more equitable judicial environment. 

Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh, in the context of justice, how do you define gender equality?

To me, gender equality is nothing but the most basic guarantee of equal protection for all human beings. It is a natural right to be treated equally and without any form of undue discrimination. The concept of gender equality should empower individuals to realize their full potential without facing repression, discrimination, or violence based on gender. Duty bearers, including government agencies such as the courts, have a responsibility to dismantle institutional structures—whether legal or societal—that perpetuate discrimination.

In your experience, what role do judges play in addressing gender bias and promoting equal treatment of all genders in court proceedings?

Judges control judicial proceedings, so whether court users experience a gender-sensitive environment or the opposite depends largely on them. Judges may unintentionally bring their biases and prejudices into proceedings, influencing how they address various issues in court. Or they can bring a sensitivity that empowers victims of abuse and discourages the perpetuation of gender bias and stereotypes by other actors in judicial proceedings. Similarly, they can also make or break any reform aimed at fostering equality in our courts. Therefore, investing in our judges is critical, particularly through training and capacity building.

We recently conducted a study on Feminism and Philippine Supreme Court decisions. This study examined the development of case law concerning women's and gender issues, as well as various feminist theories and philosophies identified in these decisions. Our goal was to identify any underlying biases or prejudices inherent in our legal system when handling cases involving women, sexual abuse, gender minorities, and similar matters. The study highlighted the significant impact of language used by judges in case rulings. Words can either reinforce harmful stereotypes or advance the cause of gender equality.

In recent years, a significant achievement has been the issuance of the first-ever Guidelines on the Use of Gender Fair Language and Court Etiquette. These guidelines are designed to discourage and ultimately eliminate discriminatory language and treatment of individuals during court proceedings.

You were appointed the most junior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines in 2022. What difficulties did you face throughout your career journey?

The challenges I've faced since serving as a First Level Court Judge have remained consistent throughout my journey, and they are likely shared by many judges in developing countries. Limited resources, a prevalent issue, present a significant problem for us. This translates to difficulties on the ground for judges to be able to deliver the best service possible to court users and citizens. During my early years as a young judge, those logistical challenges meant I needed to do more than be a jurist. I also needed to be a leader of my team and lead the court employees effectively to be able to serve the public well despite our limitations.

Beyond resource challenges, I've had to juggle multiple roles: as a mother of four, a provider, a judge, an academic, and a civil servant. Balancing these responsibilities is a common struggle for many women and breadwinners, who navigate societal expectations of parenthood and provision while also engaging in the demanding realms of justice and public service.

Now, as a Supreme Court Justice and the Co-Chairperson of the Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary or CGRJ, I am in a better position to drive meaningful change and address these challenges head-on.

Can you share any initiatives or policies that have been implemented in the Philippine judiciary to promote gender equality?

The Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary (CGRJ) meets regularly to coordinate initiatives aimed at mainstreaming gender issues and fully transforming the institution to achieve gender equality. Institutionalizing this body has always been essential in making gender issues the topmost priority of the Court.

Currently, the CGRJ is crafting a first-of-its-kind Manual and Protocol on Handling Women in Conflict with the Law (WICLs). I say first of its kind because it is a sectoral Manual and Protocol, not just court-focused, but will cover all the actors in the justice sector: from the law enforcement side to the prosecution side, to the courts, then to the jail and penal facilities, and then the community part, including our reintegration and rehabilitation initiatives.

What challenges do you perceive in achieving gender equality within the courts regarding representation and treatment?

The Court is only a part of the broader fabric of society. There is still much to be done to change mindsets and create better legal frameworks to protect the rights of individuals relating to their gender. But it is also important to note that often, persons are not just disadvantaged on account of their gender alone. They can also be discriminated against because of their disability, economic or cultural background, religion, and other circumstances. I think it is important to have this intersectional view: that often, for a person to have representation and fair treatment in courts fully, different points of disadvantage must be considered.

For example, when a deaf and mute child who is a victim of abuse comes forward, it's crucial to ensure that the process of seeking justice is empowering and healing for them. Similarly, for pregnant women deprived of liberty, it's vital to ascertain that their treatment in jail remains humane and acceptable, avoiding further harm. Do our court processes adequately consider the environmental damage and the right to ecology for impoverished communities facing the brunt of climate change? Do they facilitate rehabilitative interventions, or do they exacerbate the situation?

Taking a broader view of what it means for gender equality to be meaningful is very important because when we deal with the lives of people, it is often far from being just two-dimensional.

How can the judiciary work to ensure that women, particularly those from marginalized communities, have equal access to justice?

A key view that we can take is that when justice breaks down, women and gender minorities are most vulnerable. Our task in the court is to ensure that we work with other justice actors to make the justice system work cohesively while protecting the independence of institutions. We have an initiative in the Philippines called the Justice Sector Coordinating Council where the Chief Justice, representing the Judiciary, works closely with the Secretary of Justice and the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees law enforcement and local governments, among others, to prioritize the coordination between the justice institutions that they represent. Meaningful and equal access to justice can only be achieved if our justice system is efficient and accessible to everyone. Otherwise, those who are already disadvantaged are likely to suffer the most.

Also, I wish to highlight the Philippine Supreme Court's current plan of action to integrate the benefits of the digital age in changing the justice landscape. We have a plan, the Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovation, which covers five years beginning in 2022 to eliminate barriers to access. With technology, we can reach the farthest villages and give them access to our courts. It means enabling better opportunities for persons with disabilities to participate in the judiciary. Even our overseas migrant workers can access legal aid services in our country. We know we can harness innovation to deliver real-time justice.

In 2023, you joined the UNDP Judicial Integrity Network ASEAN Advisory Group, comprised of judges who advise the project on emerging trends, challenges, and opportunities related to judicial matters, including initiatives addressing gender equality threats.

How do you think JIN ASEAN can effectively impact the resolution of gender equality threats within the judiciary in the region?

Regional networks like JIN ASEAN provide a valuable opportunity to listen, compare, and learn from one another. As we strive to build a cohesive ASEAN community, it's essential to recognize the vast potential for mutual learning. We share common experiences and challenges that can offer fresh insights when viewed from different perspectives. Even our differences can serve as sources of ideas for enhancing our approaches in our respective countries.

When we invest in this kind of conversation, we build trust. In building trust, we expand the ways we can positively influence one another. We listen better. We are better able to reach a consensus, which is the heart of the ASEAN way. This entails acknowledging shared threats and understanding that while our paths may differ, they ultimately lead in the same direction: regional peace and stability.

As a result, discussions on policy interventions to address gender equality challenges become healthier and more effective.

What are the key priorities and opportunities for further advancing gender equality in the Philippine judicial system, in your opinion? 

We have gone far. It is always a source of pride to look back at how things were before and where we are now. The Philippines continues to shine as a beacon of hope for gender equality not only in Asia but also worldwide.

However, while we've witnessed a growing number of female judges and lawyers, indicating progress for our country, there remains a challenge in providing better opportunities for women at the highest levels. Currently, I am one of only two women justices at the highest court. I respect and applaud my colleagues in the Supreme Court, who agree with me that we need to reinforce our reforms for better gender representation.

We have also mainstreamed gender issues in the Court as an institution, but we are now working to make our system more gender-responsive, and ultimately, we hope to make it gender equal. This is a multigenerational and whole-of-government task, but our commitment to the struggles remains burning and passionate more than ever.



Stefano Pighin, Communication and Partnerships Officer, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

Throughout 2023, JIN ASEAN convened judges from nine countries in the Asia-Pacific region to develop tools for judiciaries to support judges and build capacity to address gender equality in both the operation of the courts and the protection of gender-based rights of its staff and judges. These tools include a Gender Audit, a Self-Study Reading list and a set of model policies for adaptation and adoption by judicial leaders.

The Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN is supported by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).


Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh is the Associate Justice at the Supreme Court of the Philippines. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from the Ateneo de Manila University (Second Honors distinction) and a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship and Masteral Studies at American University in the USA. She practiced law for ten years before joining the Judiciary in 2002 as the Presiding Judge of the Metropolitan Trial Court of Quezon City. Justice Singh is a highly accomplished jurist who served at all levels of the judicial hierarchy during the last two decades' career. Currently, Justice Singh is the Co-Chairperson of the Committee on Gender Responsiveness in the Judiciary and the Planning Committee of Chapter 13.2 of the Philippine Development Plan 2023-2028. She also authored several books and articles. In 2023, Justice Singh joined the Advisory Group of the UNDP Judicial Integrity Network in ASEAN project, comprised of key experts on judicial integrity which advise the project on emerging trends, challenges and opportunities to promote judicial integrity in the ASEAN region.