The catalyst for empowering women and ensuring their rights is a gender-sensitive judicial system. If a comprehensive justice system were in place, social, economic and political rights for women would fall in place, said Lakshmi Puri, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women.
In Delhi, to launch the Progress of the World's Women: In Pursuit of Justice 2011-2012, Puri said that despite widespread poverty, illiteracy and lack of awareness of legal rights among women, India is on the right track as far as judicial empowerment of women is concerned. Legislation to end violence against women in both public and private spaces and the creation of a protection force for women are some of the positive responses from the government. This process, she said, has been driven by women activists, lawyers and judges and that they should play an increasing role in the fight for gender justice.
She, however, is disappointed that women are not coming into the judiciary and police force in greater numbers. "Women have to be associated with the provision of justice, nothing can be more demonstrative of the empowerment of women," according to Puri. She does not see a rise in atrocities against women in India, rather she feels that more cases are being reported and highlighted in the media. "Aberrations like the khap panchayats will only go when there are judicial reforms and the certainty of deterrent punishment. We need to invest in a gender-responsive justice system."
She cites the Vishaka legislation in India as an exemplar of gender sensitivity of the law for its role in curbing sexual harassment in the workplace. It inspired law reform in Pakistan and Bangladesh and today almost 500 million women in these countries have legal protection to work free of harassment or abuse. "The real challenge is in Afghanistan where women face threats both in terms of security and from the Taliban," she said. She added that Nepal has raced ahead in the field of gender justice, especially in reservation for women in politics.
"Women occupy the highest offices in India, I see change coming from the grassroots, women who will no longer take things lying down, women who will seek accountability from the system. In many ways, India's has been a bright story despite all the challenges."