Justice for all: Why having more women judges benefits all of society
March 9, 2023
For the International Day of Women Judges, UNDP collected stories of African women who have pursued successful legal careers and are inspiring others to do the same. Despite challenges ranging from political instability and violent conflicts to social stigma and discrimination, these women have become lawyers, judges and prosecutors proving that women’s meaningful representation in justice means better access to justice for all.
When all the laws and quotas are there, mindset is what we need to changeJudge Elisa Samuel Boerekamp
For women jurists in Africa, being a lawyer, judge or prosecutor is more than a job; it is a vocation. “Being a judge gives me an opportunity to change people's lives for the better,” says Judge Elisa Samuel Boerekamp, a High Court Judge and General Director of the Centre for Judicial and Legal Training of Mozambique (Centro de Formação Jurídica e Judiciária).
With 16 years of professional experience, she is on top of her field. And Judge Boerekamp is a powerful advocate for equal rights and opportunities for women judges in Mozambique and beyond.
She started her career in a district court of Bilene-Macia in the south of Mozambique, a conservative and patriarchal community. “I recall a man who was very angry because he was tried by a woman. He ignored me when I was addressing him.”
She worked in this court for six years. Her knowledge of the local language, communication skills and strong personality were key factors in enabling her to stay the course. “Some women judges quit because of harassment,” Judge Boerekamp says. As a mentor for her colleagues, she saw how often women judges were discriminated against because of their gender, social roles or religion, so she took action.
As a member of the Superior Council of the Judiciary, she managed to ensure that regulations governing the deployment and transfer of judges were adapted to apply a gender lens and consider specific challenges women judges may face when they have to work in certain regions. This was a shift driven by a women's perspective and by having a woman in a decision-making role.
Judge Boerekamps’s example confirms that women jurists can be promoted and hold leadership positions. Yet, few girls here are dreaming of becoming a judge or a lawyer. “They do not see the role models and rarely have access to information about these professions,” says Judge Boerekamp, calling on fellow judges to engage in more awareness activities, organize open door days in courts and schools visits. “We need to talk about it every day to ensure gender is on the agenda of the judiciary… Sometimes all the quotas and legislation are there. What we need to change is the mindset.”
We are making a differenceShamso Bile
Shamso Bile, one of the first seven female prosecutors in Puntland (Somalia), dreamt of a legal career while growing up. “When I was young, whenever I heard about abuse against women, I felt sad and powerless. I felt that women needed a voice in the justice system, I wanted to stand up for their rights. When UNDP helped set up a four-year law course at Puntland State University and gave us scholarship opportunities, it was one of my happiest moments,” says Shamso Bile.
Nevertheless, the start of her career was not easy. It took time to build trust with communities. “When we started, even female survivors of violence wanted male prosecutors to handle their cases, they did not believe we could prosecute. Now, when women are looking for us saying they need a female prosecutor, I feel we are making a difference.”
Women need women throughout their justice journey, particularly in cases of sexual and gender-based violence. “Girls who suffered abuse from men don’t feel comfortable giving other men all the details, which is an obstacle to an effective investigation,” says Shamso Bile.
While celebrating small victories, women judges and prosecutors realize that gender parity in the judiciary and equal access to justice in their societies is still a long way from being achieved. Reasons for professional frustration are manifold. For example, cases fall apart when witnesses or victims withdraw. “I work on a case, collect evidence and when we are ready to complete the investigation, a woman who filed the case disappears and does not respond to us due to family pressure or money given to them to be silenced, or elders’ involvement.”
Balancing between professional life and family duties is another obstacle for women in the judiciary. “We don’t get promoted, and mainly because of the household chores. Culturally, it’s a woman’s primary responsibility. They say women are too busy with children, they will go on maternity leave, etc., so men get higher positions much more often.”
Prosecutor Bile remains determined and keeps dreaming big: “This is my passion and I hope to overcome all the challenges and achieve my dream, which is becoming attorney general or deputy attorney general one day.” To achieve her goals, Shamso Bile continued her education and obtained a master's degree in law in Uganda.
Humanizing justiceMujinga Bimansha Marie Josée
Recent years have seen positive changes for women as the number of promotions has increased, says Mujinga Bimansha Marie Josée, a judge at the Court of Cassation and the President of the Association of Women Magistrates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For this trend to continue, a sustained commitment to support women’s careers is needed.
Later this year UNDP will launch a report, “Women in justice in Africa: A comparative study of women judges in African countries.” Prepared under the framework of the Gender Justice Platform led by UNDP and UN Women, the report identifies best practices and recommendations for bringing more women into the judiciary in Africa, including to leadership positions. These include gender-sensitive policies and workplaces, civil society advocacy, effective legislation, outreach and capacity development.
The report confirms that women’s effective and meaningful participation in justice delivery is a precondition for justice for all.
Women’s leadership in justice can enhance public trust and confidence, empower the less privileged and make the court environment accessible to the marginalized. “Women are often considered to have more integrity and are difficult to corrupt,” says judge Mujinga Bimansha Marie Josée. “A high number of women in the judiciary can help humanize justice.”
Less than 1 percent of women and girls live in a country with high women’s empowerment and high gender parity
No country has achieved full gender parity and fewer than 1 percent of women and girls live in a country with high women’s empowerment and a small gender gap, acc...
Why investing through a gender and marginalization lens is good for business
The private sector has much to gain from addressing gender equality and marginalization. UNDP SDG Impact aims to make these opportunities more visible.
Bridging the gender digital divide: A way out of crisis
Digital technologies are a powerful tool to improve gender equality in crisis and fragile settings. UNDP works to provide better access to digital services that c...
Breaking down stereotypes, building up women
As the world steps forward to curb climate change and nature loss, finding solutions that work is vital. But our collective destination will not be reached withou...