In all countries of the world, there is more than one legal system in place.
In many cases, the formal state system encompasses different laws for people according to ethnic or religious identity. Family laws – on marriage, divorce, custody – and inheritance are especially likely to be subject to plural legal provisions.
In addition, in every country there are many local justice institutions, such as village courts, which often exist completely outside of the purview of the State.
Like all legal and justice systems, those based on custom or religious or ethnic identity sometimes discriminate against women.
International law recognises the right of all communities to culture and in the case of indigenous populations, the right to determine their own systems of law and for resolving grievances.
However, States also have obligations to eliminate discrimination and ensure access to justice within all justice systems.
Empowering women to demand change
Although legal pluralism can present challenges, there are many positive examples of initiatives that aim to improve women’s access to justice in plural legal systems – empowering women to retain the cultural identities they choose and demand the human rights they value and need.
- In Burundi, women are now 40% of members of the customary Bashingantahe justice system, helping to change attitudes and improve decision-making.
- In Ecuador, the Constitution guarantees women’s right to participate in indigenous governance and justice systems. Indigenous women have developed ‘Statutes of Good Living’, which are based on indigenous justice principles and aim to address violence against women.
- In Indonesia, women need to provide marriage and divorce certificates to access public services and benefits. The Government is investing in religious courts, which deal with 98% of all divorces, increasing the number of circuit courts in rural areas and waiving fees.