“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”, Dr. B R Ambedkar had previously said. According to this, the judiciary isn’t doing so well.
Our legal system’s tragic irony and hypocrisy are expressed in the fact that, despite the emblem of justice being a statue of a blindfolded Lady Justice keeping a balance, we only have around 80 female judges in the Supreme Court and High Courts, which is only 7.2% of the total number of judges. Moreover, despite women’s experience, educational qualifications, and skills, we have yet to see our first female Chief Justice of India.
Even though certain women conquer such challenges and reach great heights in the legal field as a result of their diligence and struggle, they are seen as nothing more than a “woman who achieved great things.” We don’t need a word like “Lady Judge” in our lexicon because the term “Judge” is gender-neutral. In this area, the underlying sexism and mansplaining express themselves both overtly and covertly.
It was recently acknowledged by our former Chief Justice of India S. A. Bobde that it was past time to have a woman occupy the post of a CJI. Supreme Court bench headed by CJI Bobde comprising of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Surya Kant heard a plea filed by the Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association to consider experienced women Supreme Court lawyers for the appointment of High Court Judges.
GENDER GAP IN JUDICIARY
On 13th March 2021, Hon’ble Justice Indu Malhotra retired from the Supreme Court. With this India fell by 28 positions to 140th out of 155 countries in the world economic forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. Now, Hon’ble Justice Indira Banerjee holds the unique distinction of being the only female judge in the highest court of the country.
As per the census of 2011, 48% of the Indian population constitutes women. In the Supreme Court of India, Justice Indira Banerjee is figuratively the sole voice of approximately 70 million women people.
Out of the total approved strength of 34 judges at the bench, there are only 29 sitting judges. Out of this number, as per the current scenario, only one woman judge is serving at the Supreme Court. Since independence, only eight women judges have been appointed to the Supreme Court. There are only 80 women judges out of the total sanctioned strength of 1,113 judges in the Supreme Court and the High Courts. It took four decades after independence for Supreme Court to get its first woman judge – Justice Fathima Beevi and another 28 years for Justice Indu Malhotra to be the first woman to be appointed as a judge directly from the bar. Women designated as senior lawyers are less in number as compared to men. There is only 17 female senior counsel designates in the SC, compared to 403 male senior counsel designates.
According to a first-of-its-kind report conducted by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Delhi, only 28% of lower judiciary judges in the country are women. No woman judge is sitting in the five High Courts of Patna, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Uttarakhand. While Justice Hima Koli is the only women Chief Justice serving at the High Court of Telangana. According to the survey, only three of the smallest states — Goa, Meghalaya, and Sikkim — with a total of 103 judges have a percentage of women judges exceeding 60%. The percentage of women judges in all other States, with the exception of Telangana and Puducherry, remains below 40%, regardless of geography, cultural factors, or other disparities, according to the survey.
A SHORT TIMELINE
Until now, there have been very few female Supreme Court justices. In 1989, Justice Fathima Beevi was appointed to the Supreme Court of India as the country’s first female judge. Justice Sujata V Manohar, who was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1994, was the second woman judge. In the year 2000, Justice Ruma Pal became the Supreme Court’s third female judge. Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra was named to the Supreme Court in 2010 after she retired. Ranjana Prakash Desai was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2011. In 2014, Justice R Banumathi was named to the Supreme Court. Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee joined the court in 2018.
All of these women judges turned out to be a great asset to the Indian judiciary and made major contributions to the Indian judicial system by handing down decisions on a wide range of important issues including public, private, and governance law.
IMPORTANCE OF WOMEN IN JUDICIARY
When the judiciary works without gender prejudice and promotes gender equality, it can make significant improvements in society. Various Supreme Court rulings on gender inequality, sexual harassment, and women’s coparcenary rights have been handed down over the years, but those involved in the decisions were not women. The groundbreaking decision, delivered by Justice Sujata Manohar, in the case of Vishaka v State of Rajasthan 1997, demonstrates the role of women in the judiciary. For the first time, provisions for sexual assault at work were made lawful, demonstrating how women are the best at understanding the plight of other women.
Women in the judiciary at all levels are important in dealing with these issues that have far-reaching social and political implications. First, insufficient representation of women in the courts may exacerbate biases; second, the lack of female representation in courts raises questions about the courts’ legitimacy as women serve as the equal representatives of the society; and third, the presence of female judges signals equality of opportunity for girls in the bar and works as a motivational factor for thousands of girls out there. Women’s representation in the judiciary also ensures a fair and nondiscriminatory appointment process, allowing for a more diverse judiciary.
The gender responsiveness of the courts will be influenced by equal representation of both genders on the bench, and women judges will contribute to the diversity and representativeness of the courts. Women judges will have a greater understanding of women’s issues which will contribute to gender equality.
REASONS BEHIND LOW FEMALE JUDGE RATIO
At the entry-level in law schools and the profession, the ratio of men to women is 50:50. As their careers advance, the ratio of women drops each step upward. The profession of law is a male-dominated field since the 19th century. Women were denied the privilege to practice law until Allahabad high court allowed Miss Cornelia in 1921 to practice law. Women are not in short supply in the legal profession. Women made up 44% of those who passed the Common Law Admission Test for National Law Universities in 2019. The most pressing question then is, what stops women judges at the lower judiciary from reaching the higher levels?
Women judges are victims of a phenomenon known as the “leaking pipeline,” which describes how many employed women leave the workforce in the middle of their careers when their children face board exams and their parents need additional care—jobs that fall to women. The eligibility requirements for taking the entrance exams are a significant obstacle to women’s appointment as district judges. Lawyers must have seven years of continuous professional experience and be between the ages of 35 and 45. This is a drawback for women because, by this age, many are married. Furthermore, long and inflexible work hours in the legal profession, combined with family commitments, compel many women to leave the profession and fail to fulfill the requirement of continuous practice.
Discrimination based on gender is a social blight that must be eradicated at all costs. A nation’s judiciary must step up and interpret the laws in such a way that the principle of equality is upheld. Constitutional attempts must be taken to empower women in our society and change all current laws that prevent women from making decisions and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. To be able to assert their rights, women must be motivated individually and collectively. Women decision-makers in the judiciary sector should be recruited, spaces for women to speak up and negotiate should be opened up, and women’s groups’ capacity should be increased to allow women to participate in social activities and resolve the causes of gender inequality.
Autho(s) Name: Neelam (Army Institute of Law, Mohali)
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