For decades, amid genocidal wars and gender violence that tore apart the lives and bodies of girls and women, Denis Mukwege, facing repeated threats to his own life, worked as a medical doctor in poor, broken communities in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 2018, that work was recognized universally by a Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Nadia Murad of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, who was captured, enslaved and sexually abused by Islamic State fighters.
While globally, the number of women judges in courts at all levels has been rising, when cases involve sexual abuse or other gender-specific crimes, a judgment ruled against a man can often be disastrous for the presiding judge. The current judicial crisis in Afghanistan attests to this problem in reports from the International Association of Women Judges.
In December, the organization, based in Washington, said that at least 90 of Afghanistan’s women judges — once thought to number 270 before the Taliban seized power in mid-August — are in hiding from death threats and physical assault. Others have fled the country. Some of these judges had ruled against men in cases of domestic violence, divorce and child custody cases.
“The Taliban does not accept that women have the right to judge men,” the association said.
In South Asia, however, some good news has come from Pakistan. The government recently nominated its first woman Supreme Court justice. She is Ayesha Malik, a respected judge on the Lahore High Court. Lahore, a city in eastern Pakistan, is known for its cultural leadership and cluster of human-rights activists and organizations.
In November, Mukwege described in horrifying detail in a new autobiography, “The Power of Women: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing,” what he saw and struggled to mitigate in the eastern South Kivu region of the Congo. In his account, Mukwege, the son of a Congolese Protestant pastor, also tells how he learned to respect the resilience — and sisterhood — among sexually battered girls and women in a society dominated by violent men. The absence of recourse to justice for women became a preoccupation and a cause. For two decades, he has run a legal clinic at his now-famous Panzi Hospital in Bukavu.
While he repaired obstetric fistulas, stanched bleeding from abused female bodies and treated putrefying wounds, Mukwege became not only a global leader in the practice of gynecology under extreme conditions but also an outspoken advocate for the reform of justice systems everywhere that let women down, not infrequently at the cost of their lives. Failed justice, he writes, is not confined to Africa; it also affects women in the world’s richest countries.
Part of the global recognition and discussion surrounding the mounting data on sexual violence — particularly in domestic settings, which has worsened exponentially in the pandemic years — is a sharper focus on the number and roles of women as prosecutors and judges. International institutions and nongovernmental organizations have been publishing reports on how women are faring in justice systems worldwide.
The Gender Equality Observatory at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has seen significant increases in the number of women judges in the highest or supreme courts in at least seven countries in the Caribbean basin region, led by Suriname, with the largest average of three-quarters of its most prominent judicial seats held by women. Other leaders with the highest number of women in top judicial positions are Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
In Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, based in Paris, with 38 members from the world’s richest countries, reported in 2017 that “the number of women in the judiciary has significantly increased worldwide.” However, it added: “But women are still vastly underrepresented in top-ranking judicial positions including on High Court benches and other senior roles in the legal profession. Women only hold 33.6% of judgeships in Supreme Courts.”
Revisiting corporate cultures and improving working conditions might help create a more diverse judiciary, the report suggested. Among European nations, the OECD found, Slovenia ranks highest in its share of women presiding in its courts; Germany is at the bottom of the chart.
In the United States, with its complex levels of federal, state and local courts, women in the judiciary and prosecutorial ranks progressed steadily over the 20th century. Yet numbers may be misleading indicators if the assumption is that high-ranking women in legal professions automatically support women bringing cases to the courts — or rule in their favor on major social issues. This issue is playing out in the US Supreme Court, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who died in 2020) was strong in supporting feminist or women-friendly laws when challenged by social conservatives.
When Donald Trump, in his waning weeks as president, rushed to fill the vacancy left by Ginsburg’s death, he chose Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative law professor who joined two earlier conservative Trump choices, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, to shift the court’s center decisively to the extreme political right. These choices occurred just as important decisions on abortion and other matters are pending that could set back American women’s rights.
Relying on women in the highest judicial positions is not the only way to help women without legal and financial resources, especially in the poorest countries.
Jessica Neuwirth, an American who has worked in UN legal affairs and human-rights missions, is director of the human-rights program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College and founder of Donor Direct Action, a nonprofit group that identifies organizations that are helping women around the world who haven’t been able to achieve their full potential and connects them with donors who can invest in strengthening their work.
Neuwirth, a lawyer, does not discount the impact of the legal profession. “I have seen many cases by many women judges (and some men) make a real difference,” she said in an email to PassBlue. “I don’t think the law is everything, but I do think it is a critical component of any effort to move towards social justice.”
Mukwege’s experience in the Congo has led him to a similar conclusion, but he argues that in its current state, criminal justice for women has a long way to go to be institutionally effective. He recalled in his book that in a nearby village, where parents, stymied by a local court and ridiculed by the community for seeking legal action against violence, were taking turns sleeping at night so that one of them would be on the lookout for threats to their girls.
“It became clear,” Mukwege writes, “that the problem was not a lack of courage among the community, even less a lack of vigilance by the parents. . . . The problem was a total lack of a functioning justice system. And this village outside Bukavu was a microcosm of our world.
“It might seem superficially far removed, with its wooden shacks and mud roads,” he continues. “Yet the problem the mothers of these girls faced was a problem faced by women everywhere: that even when they do speak up and denounce crimes against them, the criminal justice so often fails them.”
There is also the terrible silence that follows legal rebuffs. “Sexual abuse thrives in silence,” Mukwege writes, “but it also thrives where men are free to act with impunity.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.