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February 29, 2016

Stepping it Up for Women’s Rights and Empowerment

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative

Twenty years after the Beijing World Conference on Women—which pledged to remove all economic, social, cultural and political obstacles to women’s active participation in public and private life—and 15 years after the Security Council’s landmark Resolution 1325 launched the “women, peace and security” movement, women and girls continue to suffer discrimination, exclusion and violence across the globe. Major reports that came out in 2015 indicate improvements in some areas while illustrating gaps and challenges in others [see;;]. Further, the rise of violent extremism and attacks specifically targeting women underscore those challenges. Reflecting growing impatience in this arena, the international community has marked these women’s rights anniversaries with a new campaign to “Step it Up for Gender Equality” through laws and policies, national action plans and investments in women’s equality. As we approach International Women’s Day, March 8, here’s a snapshot of what the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is doing to help “step it up”:

Mainstreaming women’s rights

In our 2012 strategic plan, we prioritized women’s rights—along with anti-corruption and access to justice—as one of three goals to emphasize globally.  We committed to making a concerted effort to develop women’s rights programming and to mainstream a gender perspective, systematically conducting gender analyses so that all of our programs foster women’s voice and interests.  While we at ABA ROLI still have work to do to “step it up,” we were encouraged by what we learned when we recently took stock of our work in this arena. Nearly half of our more than 50 programs worldwide have advancing women’s rights as a primary or major focus. We also consider and evaluate the impact that all of our programs will have on women and women’s empowerment, and we work to build a gender dimension into all that we do to advance the rule of law.

Beyond women’s legal services to systemic reform

Much of our women’s rights work has focused on improving women’s access to justice and essential services, as well as on preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence and harmful traditional practices. While such direct services to women are an essential remedy, long-term change requires a more systemic fix—and women themselves hold the key to articulating, designing and monitoring initiatives that respond to their needs and reflect their priorities. Thus, an important and growing area of our work aims to give women voice in institutional design and governance, particularly in constitutional reform, transitional justice and peace-building processes.

Constitutional provisions guaranteeing gender equality send an important signal to society and provide a basis for on-going advocacy and accountability. Our more recent efforts to advance women’s rights have focused on this fundamental level: supporting the writing of these rights into constitutions and ensuring their implementation. Cognizant that this starts with giving women a seat at the constitutional drafting table, we have worked to engage women in the Central African Republic’s constitutional reform process, which offers citizens the first genuine input into the structure of their government since independence. With our help, a coalition of civil society organizations—including 13 women-led organizations—organized public events, educating and soliciting feedback from 22,000 citizens, including 8,000 women. In Mali, our activities mobilized community-level input into the national Transitional Justice Strategy, ensuring that the perspectives and priorities of women leaders were included. Additionally, we worked with Tunisian stakeholders, including the Association of Tunisian Women Jurists, to promote women’s inclusion in the drafting of the country’s constitution. Finally, in Libya, we convened gender experts to analyze and provide recommendations on drafts of the constitution.

Education and civil society support for implementation

Once women’s rights are enshrined in national constitutions, the much larger challenge of implementation follows. We draw on a range of creative approaches to educate government actors, civil society and the general public about new rights and how to realize them. For example, together with a Moroccan civil society coalition, we advocated for policy reforms to implement the gender parity provisions set forth in the 2011 constitution and undertook widespread public outreach campaigns to educate citizens about these new rights. In Jordan, we partnered with non-governmental organizations to develop a nine-volume women-focused publication on legal issues. We are currently gearing up for a new program to support women-led Central African Republic organizations to advocate for and monitor the new government’s implementation of constitutional and legislative provisions impacting women’s inclusion in politics, including a constitutional provision that establishes a quota for the number of women on the Constitutional Court and the development of constitutionally-mandated legislation setting requirements for women’s participation in political parties. And in Tajikistan, we conducted community-based economic empowerment trainings for women, and we promoted gender equality in rural communities through a traveling theater production.

Critical to the success and sustainability of these efforts is organizing, supporting and mobilizing organizations of women lawyers. Effective ABA ROLI strategies have included the creation of and support for both national and regional associations and networks of women lawyers and law students; mentorship and professional advancement programs for female law students, lawyers and judges; and regional conferences and workshops. For instance, in 2004 ABA ROLI supported the creation of the Arab Women’s Legal Network (AWLN) to support professional development for women judges and lawyers, including mentoring law students and new judges. Today, with members in 16 countries, AWLN’s work has expanded to enhance justice sector response to women, including projects such as court monitoring and training judges and lawyers to better help domestic violence victims.

Measuring effectiveness

ABA ROLI informs these programs with a range of assessment tools and methodologies aimed at measuring gender equality and the efficacy of program interventions, including our CEDAW Assessment Tool  and Status of Women Assessment Methodology. The emphasis on women’s rights in the new Sustainable Development Goals—not just with respect to Goal 5 on achieving gender equality but cutting across all 17 goals (see and—will provide important impetus to such efforts to evaluate progress and identify programs that are making a difference.

We welcome the renewed focus on the women’s rights agenda and, importantly, the commitment to moving beyond rhetoric to realizing rights. This coming International Women’s Day and beyond, we look forward to sharing our experience and lessons learned to advance the cause.

Director, ABA Rule of Law Initiative