Relevance of gender in the policy area

The relevance of gender in the justice policy area should be considered in terms of the following points:

  • Access to justice is a human right and an integral aspect of the rule of law.
  • Crime is a gender-oriented phenomenon, but the justice system does not equally accommodate women’s and men’s needs.
  • The due diligence principle holds states (and other actors in the police and justice system) responsible for taking measures to fight violence against women.
  • Acknowledging the gender dimension of crime is not only an issue of gender equality and human rights, but also an economic one.
  • Women’s representation in decision-making is a matter of justice (political rights).

Access to justice

It is essential to ensure the equality of both women and men in the justice field, not only de jure, but also de facto. Addressing the issue of gender equality in access to justice is particularly important in the aftermath of the economic crisis, as inequalities at all levels of society have been rising and impacting negatively on women’s lives. Furthermore, there is a large body of literature underlining the fact that, despite a wide array of international laws ensuring equal rights for women and men, women’s access to justice is not equal. This is due to a combination of inequalities at legal, institutional, structural, socioeconomic and cultural levels. Therefore, guaranteeing women’s equal access to justice implies providing them with access to fair, affordable, accountable and effective remedies so that women and men can enjoy both equal rights, and equal chances to use them. As emphasised by the Council of Europe, ensuring women’s and men’s equal access to justice is an essential step towards achieving real gender equality.

Crime as a gender-oriented phenomenon

Crime is not a gender-neutral phenomenon. Different studies have shown that in general women and men commit different types of crimes and, furthermore, are subject to different treatment in the legal system. For instance, when women offend, they commit more theft and burglary crimes and have a lower involvement in serious violence, criminal damage and professional crime. The UK’s Report on the Inquiry into Preventing Unnecessary Criminalisation of Women shows that:

  • Some women are coerced into committing crimes by abusing and controlling partners, but this aspect is barely recognised in the judicial system.
  • Around half of the women identified by the criminal system in the UK committed offences to support another person’s drug habit, compared to a fifth of men.
  • Women are more often subject to poverty, which increases the likelihood of their involvement in crime.

Non-payment of fines (e.g. for television licences) is one of the examples quoted by the study, which finds that women are more likely to receive this type of fine as they are more likely to be at home when an inspection takes place and tenancies are more likely to be registered in their name. If they cannot pay the fine, they face tougher sentences.

Dealing with women’s and men’s needs in the justice system

The literature on criminal law and gender emphasises that the general concepts and principles of law are more representative of the experiences of men than of women. Indeed, women face several challenges in the criminal justice system. Women can be victims of extremely traumatising crimes, of which gender-based violence in all its forms is the most obvious, producing both physical and psychological consequences. The judicial practices or existing procedural requirements in such cases can lead to the secondary victimisation of women if procedures and decisions are not victim-friendly, the result of which can be to alienate victims from the process and potentially lead them to withdraw the case or give up.

Secondary victimisation may be caused not only by judicial procedures, but also by staff in the police or judicial system (gender differences). Secondary victimisation is rather common, for instance, in the case of women victims of domestic violence or sex workers who face sexual or domestic violence.

Women may also experience negative consequences stemming from the criminal law system which does not take into account gender differences. The family law and the civil law system cover a series of sensitive issues (e.g. divorce, spousal and child support (maintenance), parental responsibilities, guardianship and the division of property) that are shaped by the values and norms of the society it governs. If such norms and values are characterised by gender inequalities and stereotypes, this can provide gateways for attitudes and gender stereotypes to surface. The Council of Europe gives the following examples:

  1. Women lose out in the division of property after divorce, mainly because implicit contracts within the marriage agreement are not honoured.
  2. There is a low number of men who obtain custody over their children in case of divorce, due to the belief that women are better carers.
  3. Many custody decisions after spousal abuse by the male partner/father continue to place the right of the abuser to exercise parental responsibilities, or the right of the child to continued contact with both parents, over the safety and other concerns of the victim – and her children.

Different areas of civil law are characterised by inequalities in the way that they treat women’s and men’s needs. For instance, the tax law system is based on the principle of recognising paid work. However, this system does not take into account domestic work, which is generally carried out by women, thus reinforcing the lower value ascribed to family and caring work. Gender equality in the civil law system is therefore relevant in fighting explicit legal discrimination and enforcing the equality of rights between women and men within the labour market (equal pay for work of equal value) and in terms of access to goods and services, etc.

In all OECD countries, women spend more time on care work (time spent to care for a child or another adult) as a primary activity than men , even if in dual earners family that have become the model in OECD countries.

Women offenders within the prison system also face problems related to their gender. There are fewer women prisoners than men, and this can lead to women’s needs not being accommodated by the prison system.

Due diligence principle applied to acts of violence against women

The due diligence standard for violence against women (VAW) is part of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993). Article 4(c) of the Declaration asks states to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the state or by private persons”. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) noted in its General Comment No. 19 that “States may also be responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence”. According to this principle, states must display the same commitment to preventing, investigating and condemning violence against women as they do in relation to all other forms of violence.

Gender equality in justice is not only an issue of gender equality, but also an economic issue

The gender dimension of crime is an economic issue as well as an issue of gender equality and human rights. According to a study by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the costs of intimate partner violence in the EU amount to €122 billion, with intimate partner violence against women representing a cost of €109 billion (89% of the total). The cost to the EU of gender-based violence against women amounts to €225 billion. This represents 87% of the total cost of gender-based violence to the EU.

Women’s equal representation in decision-making processes

Women’s equal representation in decision-making processes is first and foremost a political right. Furthermore, women’s participation in the decision-making process also increases the likelihood of decision-making taking women’s perspectives into account.

Despite the relevance of gender equality in the justice field, this area remains influenced by a set of persistent gender inequalities, which are as follows:

  • gender equality and access to justice
  • relevance of gender in the detention system
  • gender gaps in women’s representation in decision-making positions in the judiciary system.

Issues of gender inequalities in the policy area

Gender equality policy objectives at EU and international level

Policy cycle in justice

Click on a phase for details

How and when? Justice and the integration of the gender dimension into the policy cycle

The gender dimension can be integrated in all phases of the policy cycle. For a detailed description of how gender can be mainstreamed in each phase of the policy cycle visit EIGE's Gender mainstreaming platform.

Below, you can find useful resources and practical examples for mainstreaming gender into justice. They are organised according to the most relevant phase of the policy cycle they may serve.

Practical examples of gender mainstreaming in justice


The key milestones of the EU justice policy are presented below.

Current policy priorities at EU level

The European Union’s mission is to build a European area of justice. The aim is to offer practical solutions to cross-border problems, so that citizens feel at ease when moving around the EU and businesses can make full use of the Single Market. This means:

  • respect for fundamental rights by the EU, and by Member States at national level
  • equal treatment on the basis of sex, race or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation
  • protection for personal data anywhere in the EU.

The current priorities of the EU in the criminal justice field are:

When it comes to victim protection, the EU acts to ensure that victims are:

  • recognised and treated with respect and dignity
  • are protected from further victimisation and intimidation from the offender and further distress when they take part in the criminal justice process
  • receive appropriate support throughout proceedings and have access to justice
  • have appropriate access to compensation.

The European Commission acknowledges that it is not enough to have victims’ rights only on paper. These rights must be applied and implemented in practice. Adequate transposition, implementation and application of the newly adopted EU measures are a priority for the Commission’s actions in the area of victims’ rights.

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