Beyond Legal Reforms: How to Ensure Gender Equality?

Oftentimes when I lecture on human rights, which includes women’s rights, I explain to my students that the achievement of human rights and gender equality is a process rather than a fixed result. The struggle to achieve the fulfilment of human rights is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, emphasised this in a very poignant way at the Tunis Forum on Gender Equality, held at the end of April 2019. She underlined that gender equality is like democracy – we need to conquer it every day.

Although the past 20 years were of a significant progress on advancing women’s rights, turning such laws into concrete positive impact in people’s life is still a challenge. Preparing for the Tunis Gender Forum, I started questioning myself: While legislation is one key to progress towards gender equality, what other steps are needed to ensure the fulfilment of women’s rights?

International law strengthens gender equality

I was very active in the process leading up to, and following, SC Resolution 1325. A couple of years after the adoption of the resolution, ILAC and UNIFEM (UNWOMEN at that time) organised a series of conferences focused on gender justice in war and armed conflict. In 2004, we organised a large meeting at the UN in New York.

Believe it or not, it was the first time that women from conflict-affected states and contexts were invited and given a platform through which they could describe their experiences first-hand at such a high-level international conference.

When these women were given a platform, at that conference and since then, they have given a clear message. While women are often the first victims of armed conflict, they must also and always be recognised as a key to the solution. We must strive to integrate their concerns more effectively in peace processes worldwide and achieve women’s full, equal and effective participation in those processes.

Today, it is impossible to think of women only as victims, or as vulnerable beings without agency.

The Beijing Platform for Action and UNSC Resolution 1325 are both examples of how international law can be used to move gender equality forward. Countries like my own, Sweden, where equality between the sexes has reached further than in other countries – have a role to play at the international level: to learn from and be honest about the lessons we have gathered. This might include taking the fight for terminology or pushing formulations in international instruments that other countries later will adopt.

Why the law is not enough

 As stated in the Beijing Platform for Action: “The gap between the existence of rights and their effective enjoyment derives from a lack of commitment by Governments to promoting and protecting those rights and failure of Governments to inform women and men alike about them.”

It is necessary to ‘draw out’ the nice words from international conventions expressing the rights and formulate it into laws. Laws that can be applied. Laws that someone is responsible to implement. Laws that are known to the officials working in the justice sector – throughout the chain of justice from the police to the courts.

It is also crucial to provide constitutional guarantees and/or enact appropriate legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex for all women and girls of all ages. States must review national laws, including customary laws and legal practices in the areas of family, civil, penal, labour, and commercial law in order to ensure the implementation of the principles and procedures of all relevant HR instruments by means of legislation.

Importantly, advancing women’s rights and gender equality require capable, independent and effective institutions. In many countries where ILAC works institutional capacity must first be built or strengthened in order to ensure the proper formulation or revision of laws as well as to ensure their implementation. Those who are responsible for delivering women’s rights must have the knowledge and the capacity to do so.

Institutions are composed of people 

 While legislation is key and capable institutions are necessary, there is often also a need for a changed mindsets and behaviour, broader political reforms, and increased female participation in decision-making amongst other things.

Even if laws are reformed, new laws are drafted and constitutional guarantees are put in place, this is not enough. All-too-often one forgets that true implementation of new laws also requires a new way of thinking within the institutions. And institutions are composed of human beings.

ILAC has a long history of supporting justice sector institutions which naturally involves empowering legal professionals by turning their individual capacity into organisational capability. We have learned through our experiences working with institutions and legal professionals that justice problems need to be addressed in a people-centred way, both through legal and behavioural change.

Goal 16 of the SDGs of the 2030 Agenda, places institutions at the forefront by recognising institutional quality, respect for rule of law principles and professional integrity at all levels of the state, as the fundamental element for achieving equal access to justice. However, none of this can be achieved without first tackling gender injustice.

Women’s rights: not only about women – and not only about rights

In Sweden, the moment real progress began was when my mother’s generation managed to institutionalise women’s rights and thereby fuelling a general debate about  equality between men and women.

Women entered into politics, took their rightful places in decision-making bodies, and managed to pass some very important laws and reforms. These included (i) a taxation reform that allowed for individual taxation, rather than joint taxation within the marriage; and, (ii) a universal day-care reform. These reforms made it possible for women to have both a family and a job, and subsequently financial independence,  vital to the progress on gender equality in Sweden.

The Swedish experience shows that no matter how comprehensive and inclusive the laws are, structural reforms are central to shifting people’s mindsets on these issues and creating sustainable societal change.

Gender equality is not only about women, nor can it be achieved by women alone. Gender equality is about women and men and the relations between them. What I am referring to is the power relations that surround gender, the gender norms that define how men and women ‘should be’ in order to fit into society as is.

Additionally, both men and women can face additional barriers to the enjoyment of their human rights because of their race, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability or socio-economic class – or because they’re indigenous people, migrant workers, displaced or refugees.

It is a misperception that challenges to the rule of law and equal access to justice only persist due to a lack of capacity and recourses. Such challenges also arise from ideas, values and the lack of political will to act. Effectively strengthening institutions and empowering legal professionals requires an in-depth understanding of both the legal, administrative, social and political obstacles involved. And we also need the engagement of a broad society. Men and women.

To work for women’s rights is an ongoing struggle – both to maintain what has been achieved and to continue to push forward. And that is also why occasions like the Tunis Gender Forum is important. The Forum gathered 500 participants from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, from different cultures and with different traditions. In spite of this diversity we are united in our belief in gender equality and that gives me hope for the future.

Blog piece by Agneta Johansson, ILAC Executive Director