Making abstract legal rights a reality for women around the world

8 Apr

Hannah Davies, OWA's Director, talks to Helen Kijo-Bisimba from the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania

– Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action

Women’s groups around the world have achieved remarkable progress in advancing women’s legal rights and entitlements. Most countries have ratified major legal instruments such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. At the national level, the number of equal rights and anti-discrimination statutes has also grown. Yet for many of the women that One World Action works with, these instruments are abstract and out of reach, and justice remains elusive. As women here in the UK also know all too well, equality in the eyes of the law – even where it exists – does not mean equality in practice.

Women’s access to justice was the focus of a One World Action event this week with UK legal professionals, hosted by Matrix Chambers. Helen Kijo-Bisimba from the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania – one of OWA’s partner organisations – spoke eloquently about the many hurdles women face in accessing justice in Tanzania. Some of the obstacles are very practical, like a lack of time and money. In Tanzania, there are only 1,200 lawyers for a population of forty million[1], concentrated in the large cities. For women in remote areas, travelling vast distances to access courts, police and prosecution services is near impossible. Even for women in the cities, the lack of legal aid services in the country means costs are often prohibitive.

Other obstacles are social and cultural. Even where laws have been reformed so that women have access to justice, changes are slow to penetrate to the level of cultural traditions, beliefs, values and norms. Yet it is precisely these informal social and cultural systems which determine women’s access to the rights and protections provided through statutory laws. In Tanzania, where female genital mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed since 1998, 15% of girls still suffer the practice. This is a result of cultural beliefs about FGM acting as a control on women’s sexuality, guaranteeing their virginity before marriage and their chastity after marriage, improving their fertility, and enhancing their husband’s sexual pleasure. Although some cases have been taken to the courts, they are often withdrawn due to pressures from relatives and community.

Women victims/survivors of violence also come up against strong taboos which inhibit them from making such matters public. Many women remain silent out of shame or fear of retribution, including the risk of further violence at the hands of family or law enforcement officials. For women who are financially dependent on perpetrators, speaking out is a risky option. In other cases, women simply don’t recognise that their rights have been violated, or don’t realise that this violation constitutes a crime.

Aware that changing laws can only ever be the first step in guaranteeing women’s access to justice, One World Action works with our partners to make abstract legal rights a reality. The Tanzanian Women’s Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) is a pioneer in this regard, being the first legal organisation to establish para-legal units in Tanzania to support grassroots women access justice. WLAC also provides mobile legal aid services throughout Tanzania, reaching almost 40,000 women and children to date. In response to horrific levels of sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee camps in western Tanzania, WLAC has extended its work to promote the rights of refugee women and girls. It now has two fully operational paralegal units run by refugees themselves who provide legal advice and counselling, and undertake advocacy and human rights education in their communities. Strengthening women’s legal literacy is another key focus for WLAC; for example through setting up a popular legal radio programme which attracts large numbers of listeners keen to know more about their rights and about the services available to support people whose rights have been violated.

What is clear is that access to justice for women requires more than pro-women policies and laws. It requires that women themselves, and their families and communities, are able to break the hold of tradition and taboo so that legislative gains translate into changes in women’s lives. It requires shifts in the attitudes and practices of the police and other law enforcers to ensure that women who report injustices are treated with dignity and respect rather than being harassed or shamed. It requires that women have access to the resources needed to be able to seek legal assistance. Above all, it requires that women know their human rights and legal rights, and feel confident and justified in seeking justice when these fundamental rights are violated.

These challenges are faced not only by women in Tanzania or the other countries where One World Action works. They are challenges which are pervasive, faced by women the world over. We hope that forging greater solidarity between women in the UK and those around the world who are concerned with women’s access to justice can act as a crucial step towards creating a safer, fairer, more just world for us all.


[1]    Based on 2009 figures

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