[Webinar] CSW 2022 and What's Next: Legal Empowerment as a Pathway to Gender Justice

On March 29, 2022, the Legal Empowerment Network organized a webinar, CSW 2022 and What’s Next: Legal Empowerment as a Pathway to Gender Justice. We were joined by Legal Empowerment Network members @BeverlyLongid, @UMPULA_25, @Bina, and @MariaSuyaiLutz, as well as partner Aarti Narsee.

We intended to create space to reflect on this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), which focused on achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in the context of climate change, environmental and disaster risk reduction policies and programmes.

How legal empowerment can promote gender justice

We kicked off the call sharing how legal empowerment can be a powerful tool for advancing gender justice. Often, community paralegals accompany women and girls as they navigate justice systems that can be hostile, working to ensure these systems are accountable and responsive to women’s needs. Indeed, there is significant evidence of the positive impact of legal empowerment and access to justice on women’s rights. For example, a study in Mozambique found that despite gender discrimination, almost every dispossessed widow or divorced woman with access to a community paralegal was able to successfully assert her land claim.

Gender Justice Survey Results

Next, we shared the results of a recent survey that the Legal Empowerment Network conducted of Network members interested in gender justice and women’s rights. The results include:

  • Most respondents (76%) engaged in direct support to women, while 70% were engaged in policy, advocacy and collective action, and 51% in research and learning.
  • The top three issues Network members worked on were: gender-based violence and family law; followed by gender, environmental/climate justice and land rights; and women’s health and reproductive rights.
  • Network members most frequently worked with adolescent girls and youth; Indigenous women; and racial and ethnic minority women.
  • The top three thematic areas respondents are interested in collaborating on include gender-based violence; women’s and girls’ leadership in LE; and women’s access to justice.
  • Members were especially keen to engage together on networking; learning; and building a joint advocacy agenda.

Given the interest in networking and learning around gender justice and legal empowerment issues, we viewed this event as a starting point to build towards continued solidarity and exchange.

CSW Debrief

Next, we invited Network members and partners to share their debriefs of key priorities and issues they raised in this year’s CSW.

First, Beverly Longid, Coordinator with the International Indigenous People Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL) spoke of her work with Indigenous women’s organizing and leadership. She shared that the theme of this year’s CSW, focusing on ‘breaking the bias,’ also necessitates ‘breaking the silence.’ This requires ensuring women are in leadership positions across both government and civil society, with a focus on Indigenous women’s empowerment. Beverly shared how in recent years, there has been increasing attacks on Indigenous women human rights defenders, often through judicial harassment (e.g. search warrants, criminal cases filed against women activists). Adding to this, the Philippines anti-terror law causes any form of resistance against the government to be labeled an act of terror. Given this difficult context, legal empowerment is critical for Indigenous women to be able to document the cases against them and be able to push for policy change.

Second, Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Officer with CIVICUS, shared a debrief of CIVICUS’ CSW66 side event, Women Environmental Defenders: At the frontline of Climate justice, which built on research released by the CIVICUS Monitor last year, Defenders of Our Planet: Resilience in the Face of Restrictions. The session focused on best practices to center the voices and lived experiences of women environmental, land and Indigenous defenders in decision-making spaces. One example is the #UNmuteCivilSociety campaign, advocating for meaningful participation at the UN. A good practice is that the state of Denmark gave up their seat at CSW to a civil society representative. To improve access and participation of these defenders, we also need to redistribute care work; consider equitable access to travel to international forums; and create space for informal and grassroots movements. Aarti also shared some strategies that defenders are using, including feminist participatory action research to empower women in communities. Finally, in terms of recommendations, legal empowerment, awareness of rights, and connections to resources can play an important role in countering harassment, criminalization, and violence that defenders face, both online and offline.

Third, Emmanuel Umpula, Executive Director of AFREWATCH shared some of the key challenges that women face in the context of mining exploitation, including lack of equal access to compensation from extractive industries; limited access to justice due to lack of revenue and physical distance; and access to equal pay and safe job opportunities in the mining sector. Laws are necessary to advance women’s rights, but Emmanuel emphasized the need for implementation, including budget commitments by governments; data to monitor implementation; and sensitization of community leaders on the laws.

Legal Empowerment Network members’ work on gender justice

In the final portion of our webinar, we turned to a discussion of how Network members are using legal empowerment approaches to advance gender justice, and how we can collaborate in this area.

First, Bina Ramanand, Lead Co-ordinator with Family Frontiers Malaysia shared their organization’s strategies to address gender discriminatory citizenship laws. They work to build a network of women and mothers affected by this law, including through Facebook and Whatsapp, to share information on how to navigate the system. These groups are often based on nationality and language, so members can offer peer support. Through community engagement and skill building, Family Frontiers supports affected families to self-advocate. Family Frontiers has also mobilized the community to file a public interest constitutional challenge against the Malaysian government, which has served as a useful public awareness tool to mobilize impacted communities. Finally, Bina shared that sessions like this to share best practices and engage together with donors are useful ways for the Network to advance gender justice.

Suyai Lutz, part of the Network of Grassroots Gender Advocates (Red de Promotorxs Territoriales de Género), in Argentina, shared the context in Argentina, including violence against women and femicide. Here, women face significant challenges in accessing justice, including revictimization. The Network of Grassroots Gender Advocates trains gender advocates from vulnerable communities who can accompany women through the justice seeking process. Suyai spoke to how the Legal Empowerment Network can create space for members to exchange experiences, strategies for the legal and economic recognition of gender advocates (also called justice defenders or community paralegals), lessons on security protocols for grassroots gender advocates who face risk, and how we can influence public policies.

Finally, Rebecca Iwerks, Learning and Policy Advisor with Namati, shared that the Legal Empowerment Network is convening a group focused on land and environment justice and building a global campaign to ensure community control over their land. As part of this, we want to ensure that women’s voices and perspectives are centered, and we invite Network members interested in this area to connect.

During the Q&A portion, we addressed a few themes, including:

  • How the Legal Empowerment Network can address the threats that women justice defenders face, including through learning how communities can organize themselves; sharing experiences of defenders across different context; and exchanging resources that are context-specific and locally relevant that can aid in the protection of defenders facing threats and judicial harassment.
  • How to link legal empowerment with intersectionality, to reach vulnerable communities, including migrant populations, for example.
  • How to strengthen women’s power and leadership in decision-making, including by sharing success stories to build solidarity across movements; celebrating our victories, no matter how small; ensuring men and elders are included in programming; using innovative methods, such as technology, to advance self-help and organizing; and creating space for grassroots advocates/paralegals to replicate the work and become trainers and leaders themselves, generating a multiplier effect and cultivating a new generation of grassroots gender advocates.

This webinar was just the beginning; we hope to follow up by creating opportunities for learning, exchange, and collective action around legal empowerment and gender justice. If you’re interested, please comment and let us know a bit more about your work in this area!

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