Access to justice is a multi-faceted concept linking the protection of fundamental rights and the effective provision of justice to everyone, without any kind of discrimination, including gender discrimination. It entails obligations on the state to ensure the accessibility, equality and accountability of justice services, as well as promoting legal awareness and literacy so that individuals can claim and defend their rights.
These were among the main messages of the closing ceremony of the European Union and Council of Europe’s joint action on “Fostering women's access to justice in Turkey”, within the scope of the joint programme entitled "Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey 2019-2022” and implemented in co-operation with the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, that was held in Ankara today.
Alexander FRICKE, Head of Section of Civil Society, Fundamental Rights, Judiciary and Home Affairs of the Delegation of the European Union to Türkiye, noted that “This gathering was timely as we celebrated the anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which also inspired the European Convention on Human Rights. Due to various problems around the world, progress on gender equality failed to move forward and that gender gaps remained in many areas. Therefore, our efforts are crucial to accelerate the change to foster the gender equality. We are committed to realising the Gender Equality Action Plan together with EU Member States. We are also working for gender mainstreaming in our other concrete action plans and would continue to support all of these efforts undertaken in this field.”
The closing ceremony, which was intended to present the outcome of the action on “Fostering women’s access to justice”, brought together the Union of Turkish Bar Associations and the heads of local bar associations and women’s rights centres across Türkiye, as well as representatives of public institutions and agencies, universities and research centres, and non-governmental organisations working in the fields of women's rights, women's access to justice and combating gender-based violence.
In his remarks, President of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations Atty. Erinç Sağkan stated that “We know that the most important factors in eliminating barriers to access to justice for disadvantaged women in Türkiye are to increase the capacity and awareness of bar associations and lawyers in this field in co-operation with civil society and the press, and to ensure that bar associations and relevant institutions operate more effectively. We are aware that such projects are very important in establishing an effective defence mechanism to prevent all kinds of violence that women are systematically subjected to, and we continue our work in this field.”
Starting her opening speech by conveying the message shared by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights on International Human Rights Day, Pınar Başpınar, ad interim Head of the Council of Europe Programme Office in Ankara, highlighted: “We are happy to have successfully completed the first phase of the action on “Fostering women's access to justice in Turkey”, which has been implemented since October 2021 in co-operation with the Union of Turkish Bar Associations and local civil society organisations. This action – which aimed to increase the gender sensitivity of legal aid services and women's access to these services, as well as to improve legal awareness and literacy among women – will continue to conduct activities with similar objectives under the Horizontal Facility III programme, which will start in 2023.”
Marta Becerra, Head of the Capacity Building and Co-operation Projects Unit at the Gender Equality Division of the Council of Europe, underlined that legal aid and assistance play a vital role in eliminating obstacles faced by women in accessing justice and supporting women to exercise their rights as equal citizens. “To that end, this action provided legal aid services to women in more than 380 cases by legal aid lawyers trained through the Council of Europe’s HELP course entitled “Access to justice for women”, which was adapted to the Turkish legal system. Besides, recognising the importance of dialogue and co-operation between civil society, public institutions and other stakeholders, our action reached more than 300 local representatives in four pilot provinces – Diyarbakir, Mugla, Nevsehir, and Ordu – to identify local challenges faced by women in accessing justice and finding solutions to overcome them. In addition, the action produced two handbooks, on strategic litigation and on legal aid, and a research report on barriers to women’s access to justice and legal aid was published online. Lastly, we have supported four local civil society organisations working on fostering women’s access justice and increasing their legal awareness.”
The result of the research was a report on “Understanding barriers to women’s access to justice and legal aid in Türkiye”, which was prepared by Prof. Dr. Gülriz Uygur and Eileen Skinnider and produced in co-operation with legal aid lawyers, representatives of civil society organisations and experts through focus group discussions and an online survey among legal aid lawyers.
According to the research, one of the most important elements of access to justice is the provision of legal aid, which contributes to eliminating barriers for people who lack financial means or capacity to defend their rights and supports them to claim their rights and benefits from available remedies and services. However, for many women in Türkiye, interacting with the justice system and accessing legal aid can be a challenging and overwhelming experience. Economic, social and cultural barriers reduce women’s ability to obtain equal protection of their rights, acquire legal remedies established by law and access available legal aid. Moreover, a lack of awareness of these barriers among front-line professionals, including legal aid lawyers, and embedded discriminatory attitudes and gender stereotypes further limit women’s access to justice, including legal aid, and their enjoyment of their rights as equal citizens.
Participants also shared feedback on the research and discussed its proposed recommendations including legal reforms, developing gender-responsive policies and general principles, raising awareness of women’s and girls’ right to legal aid, investing in specialisation and empowering women lawyers to overcome the challenges faced by women in accessing to justice and legal aid.
This event was organised in the framework of the action on “Fostering women's access to justice in Turkey”, part of the European Union and Council of Europe’s joint programme entitled "Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey 2019-2022". This programme is a co-operation initiative of the European Union and Council of Europe for the Western Balkans region and Türkiye. Both Organisations agreed to further strengthen their co-operation in key areas of joint interest such as the efficiency and independence of the judiciary, fight against corruption, organised crime and economic crime, freedom of expression and media and anti-discrimination and protection of the rights of vulnerable groups.