The National Association of Women Judges Uganda (NAWJU), the Ugandan Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), successfully convened the 17th IAWJ Africa Region Conference in Kampala, Uganda, under the theme “Women Judges Breaking The Barriers, Strengthening Institutions.”
The four-day conference held from the 26th - 29th of October 2022 reflected on women in leadership positions in the Judiciary, barriers that women and girls, youth, persons with disabilities and other at-risk groups experiencing intersecting vulnerabilities face in their quest to access justice. The conference centred around gender justice delivery in SGBV cases, enhancing the community justice system, emerging issues in youth justice, disability discourse, embracing victim-centred justice processes, Covid-19 and how technology can be harnessed by courts to mitigate the impact of Covid-19.
The conference's objectives were inter-alia: to share and promote practices that strengthen the Judiciary as an institution; enhance peer learning and experience sharing among judges to inform gender-sensitive adjudication; promote and elevate the role and position of women Judges. Central to these objectives is the need for breaking barriers to employment opportunities, promotions, and decision-making positions; breaking barriers to access to justice in the adjudication process through skilling judicial officers to identify and dismantle customs, traditions, beliefs, attitudes, and retrogressive practices that entrench gender-based discrimination; and finally, breaking barriers to access to justice in the broader community in formal and informal justice systems.
229 delegates drawn from both the African Chapter and the global IAWJ participated in the conference. Other participants included senior government representatives, academicians and journalists from mainstream media houses. Sharing experiences and learnings were delivered through in-person and virtual presentations, panel discussions of thematic topics and robust plenary sessions.
Several emerging issues were identified and discussed during the conference:
SGBV incidents remained underreported due to limited legal awareness of laws, rights, and lack of trust in the judicial system, among other barriers hindering their access to justice for women, girls, and other at-risk groups.
Persons with disabilities across Africa continue to face discrimination, especially persons with mental disabilities who lack legal recognition and are often excluded from full and complete living. Notably, women and girls with intersecting disabilities are more disadvantaged.
Although legal frameworks in many African countries are instructive on protecting children within the juvenile justice system, implementing these laws is still wanting. For instance, some countries had inadequate remand homes for juvenile offenders. At the same time, police and correctional officers continued to treat juvenile offenders as adults undermining the safeguards built into the law to protect child offenders and rehabilitate them. As a result, many missed opportunities for the Judiciary to redirect juvenile offenders through diversionary programs instead of processing them through the formal juvenile justice system were identified.
There is general inadequacy of victim-centred support mechanisms and trauma-informed care for victims/survivors of SGBV violence, including trafficking in persons, even where laws guaranteeing these supports exist.
Technology had a double-edged effect. While it is critical for video conferencing to allow virtual hearings, ease communication, and protect vulnerable witnesses, it is increasingly being used to perpetrate online crimes, including SGBV, a worrisome trend that the Judiciary must adapt to stem.
At the conclusion of the conference, the delegates agreed on concrete action points summarised in the Kampala Declaration endorsed by the participating delegates. Expressly, the delegates agreed to the following:
i. Break barriers for women and girls in justice systems through multi-sectoral partnerships and collaboration with formal and informal institutions to deconstruct harmful gender norms and empower them to assert and defend their rights. The empowerment will enable them to institute cases in case of violations, particularly SGBV, to strengthen women’s access to justice. In addition, delegates committed to building a research base and agenda for evidence-based programming in gender justice and continuing capacity enhancement programs for judicial officers to address SGBV;
ii. Develop gender-responsive adjudication in Online SGBV Cases through training on OGBV, adapt existing laws and application of international norms to address OSGBV to ensure justice is delivered;
iii. Strengthen child protection mechanisms by ensuring the child's best interests are applied in all children-related matters. In particular, protect child survivors and witnesses from re-traumatization and ensure juvenile offenders are treated accordingly to promote rehabilitation through educational programs and mentorship in correctional facilities to prevent recidivism. Diversionary programs, supervision and support should be adopted for minor offences to redirect juvenile offenders from the formal justice system and improve prospects of rehabilitation. Additionally, law enforcement, prison officers and judicial officers should be trained in protecting child rights within the juvenile justice system. In addition, the conference called states to action to ratify the Advocate for ratifying the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, 1980 and the Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, 1993;
iv. Leverage information technologies in post-pandemic justice delivery by holding virtual hearings, online filing and communication to reduce case backlog and litigation costs and enhance access to justice. Recognize evidence collected using mobile phones, cameras and social media. Encourage governments to electronically link data of criminal justice institutions such as police, prosecution, prisons and courts to enable virtual hearings of criminal matters;
v. Mainstreaming disability inclusion through upholding the principle of equality, non-discrimination and respect for the human rights of persons with disabilities; Removing barriers that devalue persons with disabilities through law reforms to align domestic laws with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, including recognising the legal status and capacities of persons with disabilities. Ensure accessibility and engagement of PWDs with the Judiciary, and build institutional capacity on disability within judicial institutions; and
vi. Adoption of victim-centred justice practices and procedures at all levels and creation of safe victim and child- friendly environments that promote access to justice outcomes to ensure timely and responsive justice interventions in line with the law and the victim's own definitions of what justice means to them.
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