Posted by: jessicaleefitzgerald | March 8, 2017

Happy International Women’s Day!

Happy International Women’s day to you all! This International Women’s Day I want to highlight the achievements of the male and female lawyers I am surrounded by daily who fight to make the legal system in Africa fairer and more protective of women.

Being at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) has been the most interesting and personally enriching experience of my life. It has been astounding to learn about the sheer breadth of work that the office of only nine lawyers undertakes. All of the lawyers at SALC work across women’s rights in some way, because women’s rights intersect into all areas of human rights work, such as health rights, prisoner’s rights, LBGTI rights, property rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and labour rights.

The purpose of this post is to highlight the amazing work of the lawyers I get the pleasure to work with each day, who are empowering women and providing them stronger, more stable legal protections, so that they can live lives free from fear and abuse, so that they can be healthy, and so that they have access to education, opportunities and choice.

Ending Child Marriage in Tanzania

A male lawyer at SALC recently won a case which means that it is now illegal for girls to be married at 14 years of age in Tanzania. The case mentioned instances where a 70 year old man had married a 15 year old girl, and where women under 18 years old were being forced to have sex, but were not able to report the rape, because it occurred within a marriage. Women are now required to give their own consent to a marriage only after they are 18 years old – their parents and the Courts can no longer consent to a marriage on their behalf. This also enables women to complete school, and prevents girls as young as 14 from being subjected to sexual and domestic abuse from their husbands, who are usually much older.

Ensuring the safety of women engaged in sex-work in Malawi

A male lawyer at SALC recently won a case which challenged laws that Police were using to arbitrarily arrest and detain sex-workers in Malawi, in order to harass or intimidate them. These women were often asked for bribes or sexual favours in exchange for their release. As a result of this case, women in Malawi can no longer be arbitrarily arrested under these laws, and the case has prompted an education campaign for Police on the limits to their powers of arrest.

Challenging the automatic dismissal of women who are pregnant

Myself and another female lawyer at SALC are currently assisting on a case which challenges the unfair dismissal of three women from the Defence Force for falling pregnant. There was a policy which outlined that women who fall pregnant within their first years of service will be automatically discharged, as they became permanently unfit for service. All three women are from very poor families, and the money they earned in the army supported themselves, their husbands and their broader families (mothers, fathers, brothers, aunties, uncles, and extended cousins). We are working to get them compensated and reinstated, now that they are no longer pregnant, so that they can continue work and provide for their families, and so that they do not become destitute and fall below the poverty line, as a result of an unfair and illogical policy.

Why we do it

Every case, every campaign brings us closer to a world where women are treated with respect and dignity, where they don’t fear domestic abuse or mutilation, where they have equal access to education, where they are able to drive, to own property, to make choices about how they wish to live their lives, and where they have access to basic medical services to ensure their health and those of their families.

Women’s rights are not only a women’s issue, which is why I highlighted that two of the three cases were won by male lawyers. Women’s rights are realised when both men and women work to ensure their realisation – women are only one half of the equation.

It is an amazing privilege to be surrounded by, and be working with, such talented lawyers to advance the rights of women in Africa – an opportunity which I am genuinely grateful for, every day.


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