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Putting the Rule of Law Behind Women's Rights

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All over the world, the infrastructure of justice is failing women. In some cases, it is the laws themselves that legitimise discrimination - whether on property rights, freedom of movement or women's control over their own bodies. In many more societies, however, the problems stem from a justice system which fails to recognise the informal and often unconscious bias against women.

I was shocked to read the statistic reported by UN Women that women across the world are three times more likely to report a robbery than a sexual assault. It is equally shocking that female circumcision is still widely practiced in African countries, even where it is illegal.

It is not enough to put the right laws in place to root out discrimination, important as this is. We also have to find the commitment, knowledge and resources to enforce them fairly. And crucially, we need to change attitudes, though that can be harder to bring about than changes in the law. Yet one often leads to the other and both are needed to deliver real change throughout society.

So what is working? It is important to note the progress around the world and how it is being achieved.

Here in the UK for example, it was no coincidence that major improvements in policies aimed at helping women - and men - better balance family and career came following a big increase in the number of women MPs of all parties. But we also need more women in the judiciary. Women judges bring different qualities into their decisions. They are not better than men, but complementary; helping ensure our justice system reflects all our experience and wisdom.

Over my own legal career, I have seen how more women in the law as well as in parliament have helped transform attitudes to domestic violence in the UK. We are seeing the same shifts elsewhere - for example, in Brazil in the last few years, thanks to an increase in the number of women judges and the bravery and tenacity of domestic abuse survivors like Maria de Penha.

The challenge now is to build on and extend these successful initiatives, giving women a stronger voice in shaping our justice system and ensuring it treats everyone equally.

The former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has said, "In a society where the rights and potential of women are constrained, no man can be truly free. He may have power, but he will not have freedom." It is a compelling argument: that by placing restrictions on the full participation of women in society, we are limiting what society can be and therefore impeding the freedom of all peoples.

The evidence is compelling that the unrealised talents of women will help us overcome the major challenges we face. The principle reason that in 2008 I set up a foundation for women was to explore a further way of helping to empower women - through financial independence. The foundation helps women in developing and emerging markets set up and then expand small businesses. Financial independence gives women power and influence within their family and in their community. Power to make decisions, to insist, for example, that their children (especially their daughters) have an education, and to begin to change the way that they and other women are viewed in their societies.

I have seen just what women can achieve if we simply help give them a more level playing field in the world of business. It is not just the direct and important effect their success has on their lives and those of their children. Women who earn money, and become employers as their businesses expand, have an impact too on their country's economy. Evidence suggests, for example, that South Asia's continuing gender gaps in education and employment - in part down to poor legal protection - explain why annual per capital growth is over one per cent lower than in East Asia, where more women work. That difference in growth would play a major role in tackling poverty and disadvantage. For whether you are a company or country, the secret of success now more than ever before is making the most of the potential of everyone.

It is why dismantling the barriers which prevent women making their full contribution to communities and economies is important to every one of us whatever our gender, whoever we are and wherever we live.

In Ethiopia, they have a saying: where a woman rules, streams run uphill. In other words, women can make wonderful things happen. A society - a world - that does not allow them to participate fully is a world not living up to its potential.

Trust Women, a conference by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune, will take place in London on the 4 & 5 of December. The conference aims to connect legal expertise with the financial, NGO and educational sectors to enable women to exercise their rights. To take part: www.trustwomenconf.com

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