Advancing gender equality requires changing the hearts and minds of people around the world – from decision makers to community members. It also requires having the right laws and legal frameworks in place to ensure girls and women can actively and equally participate in society. And while protections for girls and women are often featured in national Constitutions, laws frequently restrict women’s rights and freedoms.
This month, Deliver for Good Campaign Partners invited Hina Jilani – a longtime gender equality champion as an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Pakistan and member of the Elders – to speak with Katja Iversen – President/CEO of Women Deliver – about the importance of strengthening women’s leadership, participation, and equality under the law.
Katja Iversen: You have been an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan since 1992 and have led landmark cases for human rights in Pakistan – especially for women. What role does law play in advancing gender equality and enabling women’s access to justice?
Hina Jilani: Legal recognition is the first step towards effectively guaranteeing the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in national Constitutions and international human rights instruments. It is particularly important in societies where women become vulnerable to discrimination, abuse and exploitation because legal protections are not available to override social/traditional practices that are prejudicial to women’s equality. The right to challenge state actions or private actors that violate the law allows women to access judicial forums to claim redress for any grievance, including discrimination or denial of equality.
Honor killings in Pakistan illustrate the importance of having specific legal protections for women. Because of complications created by laws applicable to murder, and the permission law grants to heirs of the victim to forgive the accused (with or without monetary compensation), members of a woman’s family were able to get away with this crime with impunity as created by the law itself. As certain parts of the country socially support this practice, courts were also not inclined to see the inherent injustice within the law. It was only when the Women’s Protection Act was enforced in 2006 that courts were bound to not accept any compromise between the family and the accused in cases of honor killing.
Policies that require female student to score 100 marks more than male students to be eligible for admission to medical colleges is yet another example of discrimination against women despite the Constitutional guarantee of equality and equal protection of the law. This policy was challenged and the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave a landmark judgment rejecting the policy as discriminatory and upholding women’s right to equality as guaranteed by the Constitution.
These two examples demonstrate that legal recognition – while perhaps insufficient for ensuring equality – paves the way for access to justice and judicial oversight that can redress the violation of fundamental rights.
Katja Iversen: You are a member of the Elders, a group started by Nelson Mandela that is comprised of some of the most prominent world leaders speaking with a unified voice about dignity and rights for all. Where does gender equality and women’s leadership fit into this work?
Hina Jilani: The Elders, especially Mary Robinson, Graca Machel, Ela Bhatt and I, have always given primary importance to gender equality in all of our work on peace, human rights and democracy. We are very aware that women’s right to equality, as well as to protection against violence, are at the core of any endeavor to build just societies or sound legal systems that deliver justice in a manner that addresses every aspect of human rights. When the group was formed in 2007, one of the initial programs focused on the elimination of child marriage. The program now flourishes under the banner of Girls not Brides. Access to justice continues to be one of the Elder’s key programs with gender equality as a main focus.
Katja Iversen: You were once quoted saying “Nobody brings about change single-handedly. There are many people who are legendary, who have influenced events in the world, but behind them there is always a collective effort.” This really speaks to me as partnerships are at the heart of Women Deliver and the Deliver for Good Campaign. How can advocates more effectively fuel those collective efforts towards gender equality?
Hina Jilani: Women’s rights advocates everywhere have demonstrated their ability to transform individual struggles into movements that have gathered strength from collective commitment to achieving common goals. Today, there is a global women’s movement that has grown out of women’s individual initiatives to rise for their rights at the national level.
This was a phenomenon we also witnessed just before the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. That mobilization fed into the global mobilization of women in preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Women who had gained visibility as leaders of national women’s movements were able to draw women within their sphere of influence into this global endeavor where women collectively negotiated the Conference agenda and the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action text.
Katja Iversen: Women’s political participation is a powerful tool for fueling change yet women remain underrepresented across most political spheres. As a leader working to tackle the social norms and legal frameworks that hold women back, what are some key solutions needed to strengthen women’s political participation and decision making?
Hina Jilani: In my view it is not legal frameworks or even social norms that determine the extent to which women can gain equal space for political participation. I believe that women’s political participation is not limited to their share in a representative role and should include their ability to exercise all rights as citizens. It is for this reason that I believe that it is the level of democracy, and the respect for democratic norms in a particular country, that determines the potential for women’s political participation and empowerment. Women’s rights advocates should also recognize that they can only advance their cause by making alliances with other social and political movements and should not expect their rights to be promoted in isolation or by detaching themselves from the political environment in which they are trying to promote their rights.
Katja Iversen: You have been at the heart of the women’s movement in Pakistan including founding the first all-women law firm and the Women’s Action Forum, a group created to challenge discriminatory laws. And it hasn’t been easy – you have faced threats, intimidation, and people trying to silence you along the way. How have your remained resilient in your leadership and commitment to women’s rights?
Hina Jilani: Like all human rights defenders, I cannot afford the luxury of pessimism or frustration. For me, even the slow or small gains we make are energizing enough to keep me ready for the next step towards change. The struggle for change is important in itself and, sometimes, success is a bonus rather than a goal. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “We are all prisoners of hope.” I have been to many prisons in my life and have fought against the injustice of political incarcerations for myself and many others. However, I willingly remain a prisoner of hope.
Katja Iversen: March is an important month for women’s rights with International Women’s Day on the 8th followed by the annual Commission on the Status of Women. In honor of these moments, what advice would you offer budding young leaders who strive to advance gender equality in their communities and countries?
Hina Jilani: Always be outraged by discrimination and never underestimate your ability to achieve your objective of gender equality. This is a fight worth having for ourselves and for our coming generation of women – and men as well, because gender equality is at the center of social progress that benefits everyone.