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Last edited: December 21, 2011

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While existing information indicates that informal justice mechanisms pose many risks to women and girl victims of violence, advocates are working around the world within informal systems to make them more gender-responsive and to increase the choices available to women who need a remedy. Strategies include increasing the participation of women in informal mechanisms, non-governmental organization engagement with informal mechanisms to alter power inequities, changing the types of remedies that are proscribed through informal systems, and creating entirely new justice mechanisms. For more information see the Guiding Principles section.

Key strategies to improve informal justice mechanisms include:

  • Developing accessible appeal or complaint mechanisms for survivors who are unhappy with the judgments of informal mechanisms
  • Ensuring that confidentiality procedures are in place
    • Evaluating how public participation impacts on the confidentiality of victims.
  • Appointing advocates for women and girls who have cases before informal mechanisms
    • Advocates should be women elders or other well-respected women.
    • Advocates should be trained in the dynamics of gender-based violence.
    • Advocates should have access to referral information so as to connect women and girls with supportive services where available.
    • Advocates should be empowered to speak on behalf of survivors during the process if the survivor wishes them to do so.
  • Ensuring that victims are not required to attend any negotiations about remedies or compensation, but have the option to attend or send a representative
  • Changing compensation regimes
    • Supporting compensation schemes only when in addition to other punitive remedies, such as incarceration.
    • Ensuring that any compensation is allowed only when acceptable to the survivor.
    • Ensuring that compensation is paid directly to the survivor, not her family or male relatives, and that it is placed in trust if she is under age.
  • Changing penalties applied by informal mechanisms
    • Ensuring that penalties comply with international human rights norms.
    • Consulting survivors about the use of non-custodial penalties.
    • Eliminating the use of physical punishments.
  • Working closely with survivors to ensure that apologies are never a substitute for sanctions or reparation, and are allowed and encouraged only when the survivor wishes to hear and/or accept such an apology
  • Adopting a formal resolution on gender inclusion or reserving spots for women on informal case resolution bodies. However, it is important to note that having women decision makers does not automatically ensure the prioritization of victim safety and offender accountability in any justice system.
Example: In Cuetzalan, Mexico women form part of the governing structure of the local indigenous court. In this way, they are able to influence the operations of the court in a direction that is more positive for women.
  • Creating women-run case resolution mechanisms.
Example: the Mahila Panchayats in India are run by women and the agreements that parties come to during the sessions are enforced by women in the community who monitor the outcomes.

India – Women-run “Traditional” Justice Mechanism

In the Delhi slums, women who are victims of violence, especially violence that is  considered a family problem such as domestic violence or dowry violence, have few options for justice in practice, despite the progressive act on domestic violence passed int 2005. Police may refuse to file reports or denigrate women who come to seek help, finding legal advice is costly, and traditional justice mechanisms are dominated by men. Women’s groups, led by Action India, have created a new justice mechanism that is designed to be more supportive of women, known as the Mahila Panchayat. The mahila panchayat provides an example of innovation within a traditional system to enhance women’s participation and control. However, it also raises important questions in that innovation can reproduce problematic aspects of traditional systems, such as requiring face-to-face negotiation in cases of violence, victim-blaming, unclear risk assessment procedures, and pressure to reconcile in the cases of inexperienced panchayats.

Based on the traditional village council, Mahila Panchayats are Neighborhood Women's Councils. Dozens of Neighborhood Women's Councils have been started by Action India, each with 25 to 30 members. A study of mahila panchayats published in 2003 described the mahila panchayat method of operation and concludes that the new justice mechanism has increased women’s options and empowerment. The study was based on in-depth interviews as well as five months of observation of panchayat sessions, counseling sessions, home visits, and workshops. It did not address concerns about mediation and negotiation of domestic violence cases however, which are important concerns relative to the mahila panchayat model.

The mahila panchayat process generally begins with a woman seeking help from the organization, although some women also are referred by the police. Common complaints reported by the study focused on male family members or community members and include domestic violence, dowry violence, alcohol and drug use, failure to support the family, affairs with other women, and property grabbing. Prior to the development of the mahila panchayat, the problems noted above, including domestic violence, generally were addressed through traditional bardari panchayats, which were completely controlled by men, or through family negotiations. According to the study, the mahila panchayats generally do not involve police unless a woman’s life is in danger, although it was not clear from the study reports how that risk assessment is made.

After hearing a woman’s complaint, the panchayat sends a letter to the other party, often the husband, requesting that he attend a panchayat session. The letter notes that if men do not comply, Action India will take other action to address the problem. Women are counseled on their legal rights so as to develop their understanding of the law related to marriage, dowry, and property. Generally, the mahila panchayat requires that both parties attend a session with the 25-30 volunteer panchayat members. According to the study, most of the women who brought cases wanted to reconcile, although the panchayat also supports women who wish to leave their marriages by ensuring that men pay maintenance for children or through assisting women to find their own means of support. In all of the cases observed for the study, the mahila panchayat decision required that women receive financial maintenance and that violent behaviour stop. Decisions of the panchayat generally are solutions negotiated and written by the parties themselves, with the support and advice of the panchyat. Members of the panchayat then monitor the decisions to ensure women’s safety. According to the study, women are encouraged to make their own decisions about whether to stay in a marital relationship, and the staff and volunteers provide the social support necessary to help women follow through on their choices in the face of pressure from families and cultural tradition.

The study noted that the ability of the mahila panchayat to effectively support women’s rights and personal decision-making was in large part related to the experience of the group of community members who make up the panchayat. Those who have been engaged with the process for longer and who have had more training and experience are better able to counter men’s attempts to force reconciliation and justify violent behaviour. According to the study, the mahila panchayats hold men accountable for violence by challenging their denials and their presumed entitlement to use violence. However, it noted that newly formed mahila panchayats are less able to challenge these tactics effectively and often need to be mentored by well-established mahila panchayat groups until they become more knowledgeable about women’s legal rights and gender awareness.


Source: Magar. 2003; International Museum of Women. 2010. Women’s Justice by Action India; Action India. 2010. Mahila Panchayat Program.


Example: Messengers for Peace in Comayagua, Honduras emerged as a community watch group after workshops on promoting peace and addressing gender based violence. The group is all-volunteer and is dedicated to providing legal education to their fellow women and girls who are confronting violence. They follow-up and intervene in cases of domestic abuse.
  • Writing community level “legislation” that supports women’s and girls’ rights in the context of minority governance institutions
Example: Māori iwi (tribal) leaders in Aotearoa New Zealand formed a consortium to address family violence, which ultimately led to the adoption by most iwi authorities of “zero tolerance” policies for violence in their communities. The discussions around the draft policies also led to national level advocacy on changing legislation that the iwi believed allowed a justification in law for assaulting children.
  • Positive non-governmental organization engagement with the informal system, in particular, designed to balance power inequalities
Example: the Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-U) provides legal aid to women in several districts. Sometimes, an official letter from the organization written to the husband outlining the applicable law in the case can help to change the power dynamics and resolve the cases that women bring to the group.
Example: In Northern Iraq, among internally displaced populations (IDPs) with no access to formal justice mechanisms, the organizations Heartland Alliance and Mercy Corps are working to change the way traditional mediation operates and improve women’s rights. The program trains mediators on women’s rights in marriage and divorce and on how to mediate appropriate cases so as to prevent potential violence. Mediators are also trained to refer cases that are not appropriate for mediation to legal assistance services.

Community Tribunals on Violence Against Women (Zambia)

In Zambia, the use of “tribunals” is a longstanding technique for advocacy. The tribunals do not have legal standing as part of the formal courts, but are community mechanisms for raising awareness and making recommendations related to pre-selected cases. The tribunals consist of up to ten community stakeholders and experts on the topic. The civil society network Justice for Widows and Orphans Project (JWOP) uses tribunals to address violations of the rights of widows, such as property grabbing, wife inheritance, and widow cleansing. Community members bring their cases forward to the network of organizations involved with JWOP. JWOP then organizes 1-2 tribunals annually to raise awareness of the cases and to get recommendations from the community and experts as to how to move forward. Although the tribunals do not have legal standing to resolve cases, they can often raise awareness of injustice to the point that formal or informal justice sector mechanisms take action and provide remedies. Tribunals also can have the effect of mobilizing communities to act as watchdogs after becoming aware of the injustices in some cases.

Similar tribunals are organized by the group Jagori in Bangalore, India. The Courts of Women focus on the issue of dowry and accompanying violence against women.  The tribunals bring women from across the region to tell their stories of dowry violence and their cases are heard by a panel of experts, including legal experts. The sponsoring group then creates a report and recommendations to the government, related to new legislation and other practices to end dowry violence.

[Editor’s note: Although opportunities such as the community tribunals, which allow people to tell their stories are an important aspect of demonstrating and encouraging a norm of respect for survivors and thus important to women and girl victims of violence, tribunals might also provide opportunities for women to receive legal assistance and advocacy in pursuing cases of violence. And, it is important to note that these tribunals do not take the place of formal justice mechanisms that are also available to women and girls. See the Guiding Principles section for more information.]

You can read the infopack from the Courts of Women on Dowry in English and Hindi.

Source: Varga. 2006; JAGORI. 2011. Courts of Women: Vimochana Bangalore.