The representation of women in the judiciary is significant for many reasons. Besides ensuring that the legal system is developed with all of society in mind and that in turn a representative perspective is brought to adjudication, the inspiration it provides to the next generation of female judges gives them continued motivation to achieve their goals. And while equality in the judiciary has been historically uneven, steps are being taken to remedy this, as evidenced by the acceptance of a new United Nations General Assembly Resolution marking 10 March as the International Day of Women Judges. This Resolution, drafted by the State of Qatar, is tangible proof of an evident positive shift underway in several geographic regions.
Most specifically, in African and Arab judiciaries, the large imbalance which has been presented for decades appears to be correcting. A decade ago, less than 30 per cent of those working in these regions were female; now, according to UN Women, progress made on the Beijing Declaration shows that these numbers are rapidly increasing. 1 Crucially, this includes in the highest courts where top decisions are made. 2 In Africa, for instance, there are currently six women Chief Justices in African countries - Ethiopia, Niger, Lesotho, Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire and Zambia.
Despite hardships, many women have paved the way for this progress and were able to overcome biases and rise to positions in the highest courts. In 1959, Iraqi Judge Zakia Hakki became the first female justice in the Arab region. Following this development there was a wave of inclusion of women in the judiciary, with Morocco and Tunisia accepting women judges in the 1960s. 3
Omnia Gadalla, founder of the Egyptian organization ' Her Honor Setting the Bar' describes the effects of limited representation of women in the judiciary. "As a university lecturer, I have been moved by students' questions on the impact of discrimination against women and the lack of women judges in the judiciary," she notes. "The absence of women judges in the Egyptian judiciary has not only negatively affected the rule of law, but it has social ramifications for future generations. The exclusion of women from the judiciary has an impact on the self-perception of these young women, who are told-unfortunately sometimes by other women-that they are not capable of doing various jobs, including becoming judges."
An International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) study came to a similar conclusion- that lower representation of women in the judiciary was often due to gender stereotyping. According to data from UN Women, three countries in the Arab region prohibit women from being judges outright, while in three others less than one per cent of the judiciary is female. 4 Female judges participating in the study suggested that this could be improved in many cases by transparent selection and appointment processes. 5
In a panel discussion held in March 2021 as part of the Global Judicial Integrity Network's ancillary meeting at the 14 th United Nations Crime Congress, Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi of Ethiopia detailed a lived experience in line with the findings of the ICJ: "Globally, and in Ethiopia too, the representation of women in the judiciary is still low, though there is progress. In federal courts in Ethiopia, the number of women is 108 from a total of 344 judges. When I graduated from law school, I was the only woman who joined law school in that specific year. In recent years the number of young women graduating from law schools has increased immensely, nevertheless the saturation to the judiciary is still low. Stringent and closed recruitment processes, gender stereotypes, limited outreach of employment opportunities and reluctancy to join the judiciary among women are the main factors."
In general, there is a lack of research on the representation of women in the judiciary worldwide, particularly in the African region. This shortcoming makes it difficult to map the progress that has been made, as well as provide positive examples for aspiring young female judges. Dr. Jarpa Dawuni, Executive Director of the Institute for African Women in Law describes how she was inspired to conduct research and share the stories of women trailblazers in the judiciary, to raise awareness and encourage to others. "The absence of documentation about the lives of women in law in Africa, greatly diminishes opportunities for mentoring young women. It motivated me to tell the stories of women judges across Africa who made their way through domestic courts, to international courts. These women judges are inspiring - they came from humble beginnings, had no mentors or anyone to advise them and had to juggle their professional and personal lives. Most of these women had to fight patriarchy domestically, and a combination of patriarchy and racism at the international level. Despite all these intersectional challenges, these women judges thrived."
The importance of female representation in the international judicial community is paramount. Lawyer Omnia Gadalla describes how she took inspiration from the autobiographies of women judges like Iranian Judge Shirin Ebadi and American Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, highlighting that support exceeds national boundaries.
The Global Judicial Integrity Network hopes to bring together female judges to learn from each other's lived experiences and provide a source of solidarity. Now, every year, on 10 March the international community can unite to celebrate the progress that has been made and raise awareness about the challenges ahead.
** Crossposted from UNODC Doha Declaration