International Women’s Day is commemorated globally by acknowledging social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, but also by bringing attention to issues women still face today, of which there are many. Educational and economic inequality, sexism, misogyny, lack of access to equal opportunity, gender pay gap, period poverty and stigma, reproductive rights, gender-based violence and abuse, discrimination, isolation, lack of women in positions of power… just to name a few. How can the judiciary respond to these issues and ultimately ensure women’s rights are protected, and further violations are deterred? This International Women’s Day, we spoke with Róbert Spanó, former president of the European Court of Human Rights and Biljana Braithwaite, Western Balkans programme director at the AIRE Centre, about prominent issues concerning women’s rights as well as about the importance of women empowerment, tackling societal stigma and role of men in women’s rights movement.
What are the key challenges facing the states that stand as obstacles to a more effective fight against gender-based violence?
Spanó: This is a difficult question as the challenges are multifaceted. The number one challenge is creating awareness and changing entrenched patriarchal views on the role of women in society. I have often said that gender-based violence is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world.
Braithwaite: Roots of gender-based violence, including femicide, are found in society itself and are evident in the culture of patriarchal hierarchy dominated by discrimination of women, inequality, and unequal distribution of power between women and men. This problem is oftentimes spoken about with some degree of acceptance by stating that historically gender-based violence has always been a problem widely presented in Western Balkans and that, therefore, it is an issue that will be hard to tackle. Furthermore, this problem is often discussed on a case-by-case basis and viewed as an isolated problem of individuals. There are countless instances where femicide is reported in the media as a “family dispute” or a “lovers quarrel”, which only further perpetuates this notion that gender-based violence is isolated, a family matter, and not a problem of society as a whole. By doing so, we are turning a blind eye to a larger problem at hand. Stemming from educational and economic inequality all the way to the lack of inclusion of women in positions of power, gender-based violence is a result of all the problems women face in all walks of public and private life. There is no simple answer for the issue of violence women continuously face to this day, and we must make future efforts to address all underlying causes of it.
In the countries of the region, changes to the current legislation, the system of sanctions and protective measures in the judiciary are often requested by advocacy groups. But what does practice say? How to offer better solutions for the fight against femicide and other forms of violence against women within the existing framework?
Spanó: In my view, adopting laws to enforce gender equality and punish gender-based violence and femicide is only a part of the solution. Existing legal frameworks must be continuously supplemented with campaigns, both political and educational, to get relevant actors, including judges, to be effective in enforcing the law.
Braithwaite: I agree, legislation in Western Balkans does respond, to a degree, to the issue of gender-based violence. However, when it comes to actual implementation of these laws, we can note many issues that still loom over any attempts of tackling this problem. For example, while judicial proceedings are efficient in most cases in Western Balkans, prison sentences are still low and inconsistent. Due to socially imposed stigma and fear, gender-based violence is still widely unreported, however, when these cases actually reach courtrooms, the resulting punishments in many cases do not reflect the depth of victims’ suffering. Disparities between the approach of courts, especially when it comes to overlooking key mitigating and aggravating circumstances, have only deepened public mistrust in the justice system. Moreover, victims often do not claim damages, and when they do, they are directed to seek those in civil proceedings, which can bring them additional distress as well as impose general burden to the court systems. Lack of consistent and uniformed data on these cases remains a major challenge.
Why is it important that holders of judicial positions participate in education programs when it comes to gender equality?
Spanó: Judges are an integral part of ordering social reality. For them to be capable of successfully navigating the complexities of life they must understand the underlying power structures and patterns of human behaviour that give life to the law. Continuing education on issues such as gender equality is therefore an important part of the judicial function. After all, gender equality is one of the cornerstones of any society that strives to be a true democracy governed by the rule of law.
Braithwaite: For women in Balkan societies to live not only a life free of fear but also to fully participate in all aspects of it, gender-based violence must be prevented and penalised and women must be guaranteed equal access to services and equality in enjoying all their rights. Without courts ultimately ensuring that laws are implemented, we remain at the level of declarations. In order to further build on the judges’ skills, knowledge and practices concerning gender equality and gender stereotypes, last year the AIRE Centre, with the support of the UK Government, established Gender Champions in the Judiciary Network, by which it rallied eminent judges from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo committed to strengthening gender equality in the Western Balkan countries. This is the first network bringing together judicial professionals in the region to promote gender equality. The most important message the justice systems are sending by establishing this Network is that they recognise the importance of gender equality and are ready to contribute to the realisation of human rights and freedoms in the region. Together, we must encourage the effective implementation of national, European, and international legal instruments on gender equality and facilitate exchange of skills, knowledge, experience and ideas regarding gender equality among judges and legal practitioners across the region. And, finally, the GCJ Network will support the improvement of the professional and personal development of female judges in the region.
After you served your mandate as president of ECtHR, now you have the opportunity to share the experience of the court in a broader aspect of human rights protection advocacy. What is your motivation to join Gender Champions in the Judiciary Network as patron?
Spanó: As a father of two girls, I profoundly believe in women’s’ inalienable right to be treated with equality and dignity. In my work as a human rights lawyer and international judge, I have had to deal with many cases of domestic violence and human tragedy having its origins in gender-based violence. I wish to devote a part of my professional life to contribute to the cause of gender equality.
Why is it essential that men take equally responsible roles and proactive approaches on the pathway to gender equality?
Spanó: Because we are all a part of the problem as well as its solution. Men have historically held the reins of social and political power often resulting in the oppression and subjugation of women in many parts of the world. This state of affairs is simply unacceptable and inhuman. Without men everywhere proactively evolving and embracing the truth of full gender equality in all aspects of their lives this evil will not be eradicated.