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July 01, 2002

The Need for International Women's Human Rights Lawyers: Now More than Ever

by Mary Hartnett

Recent events have drawn the world’s attention to Afghanistan and the plight of women who during the Taliban regime lived in poverty and fear and were denied their fundamental human rights. International as well as internal pressure and support are making inroads on behalf of these women, who are slowly reasserting their rights and are now assuming positions in the interim government. However, it is not enough to simply ensure that women are part of transitional and long-term governments in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world. To foster true democracy and development, women’s human rights lawyers must also play a significant role in the reconstruction process and beyond, and these lawyers must be trained to use the international women’s human rights framework to ensure that women’s rights are provided, protected, and promoted in the context of their own culture and society. Trained women’s rights lawyers are needed not only to help draft laws providing for gender equality, but to help governments prioritize implementation of these rights, and to ensure, in the words of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer, that "resources follow rhetoric."

This article briefly describes the Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa (LAWA) program based at Georgetown University Law Center and recommends such in-depth human rights training programs as a key building block to ensure women’s human rights. The LAWA program was founded in 1993 in order to find and train promising African lawyers committed to advancing the cause of women’s rights upon return to their countries. Under the program, participants study for and receive a masters of law (LL.M) degree at Georgetown University Law Center with an emphasis on human rights and gender studies, and complete a major graduate paper on an international women’s rights issue. The fellows then complete a six-month work assignment at a public interest or government organization in Washington, D.C. Throughout their time in Washington, D.C., the LAWA fellows attend biweekly seminars with their American counterparts in the program, where they discuss key women’s rights issues and their own work with each other and with women’s rights leaders from the United States and other countries. The fellows also attend U.S. Supreme Court and congressional hearings on current women’s rights issues. The thirty-one lawyers who have completed the LAWA program have come from (and returned to) Tanzania, Uganda, and Ghana. In addition, lawyers from South Africa and Sierra Leone are currently participating, and in the future the program may include participants from other countries and regions.

One program challenge is to make sure that the training is relevant for fellows who return home to countries with unique political, legal, cultural, and practical conditions that are in many ways different from those in the United States. The program has designed the fellows’ academic and other activities with this goal in mind, providing broad-based human rights, constitutional, and comparative law training to develop the fellows’ analytical abilities so they can use their "legal toolbox" effectively within their own cultures when they return home.

Another important component of the program, developed over the years in large part due to feedback from participants, is to ground the training in practical legal approaches and include exposure to different methods of legal activism, so that fellows are able to use their training to successfully challenge women’s rights violations. For example, the fellows, together with classmates from the United States and throughout the world, take an International Women’s Human Rights Seminar that uses the case-study method to go beyond the theoretical international legal framework in order to develop practical "on the ground" strategies that use international law to effect real change for women. This seminar, which provides an opportunity for U.S. and international students to share different approaches in resolving similar problems, culminates in a major research paper where each student examines a significant issue in her home country using the international women’s human rights framework and recommends practical steps to effect meaningful change, with the final paper often becoming a blueprint for action. Problems tackled in recent seminars have included domestic violence in Uzbekistan, sweatshop workers in the United States, sexual violence as a war crime in Rwanda, and employment discrimination in Japan.

The program also exposes the fellows, through coursework, seminars, and a six-month internship, to methods of legal activism that have been successful for civil rights lawyers in the United States that they can adapt for use at home. Although the fellows learn about the shortcomings in the U.S. legal system (for example, the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that has not ratified the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), they also are exposed to its rich history of creative legal activism, which can be especially useful for lawyers returning home to help implement new progressive constitutional provisions. Although Brown v. Board of Education-style litigation has not been widely utilized in most developing countries, fellows exposed to the use of constitutional test-case litigation can and do utilize it as a powerful tool for change.

So far, the results of the LAWA program have been gratifying. All of the LAWA graduates have returned to their homes and are using their human rights training to promote women’s rights through their positions as parliamentarians, judges, law professors, labor commissioners, law firm partners, and founders and leaders of nongovernmental organizations. They draw on international, regional, and comparative human rights law to draft proposed legislation on issues such as domestic violence, marital rape, HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation, inheritance rights, and employment equality. They have produced human rights reports on a variety of issues that not only highlight shortcomings in domestic law and practice but also encourage governments to comply with international norms. They have also used their training to design strategies—legal and practical—to enable women to understand and access these rights, including establishing domestic violence shelters and volunteering their time to provide legal information and advice to women in rural areas.

The presence of effective "home-grown" advocates and leaders equipped with knowledge and skills in women’s human rights makes it unnecessary to rely on "outside experts" to solve local problems. Instead, the voices promoting human rights are indigenous, as are the strategies to change and implement laws to improve women’s lives.

Author’s Note: Portions of this article are contained in a forthcoming edition of the Harvard Women’s Policy Journal.

Mary Hartnett

Mary Hartnett is executive director of the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program, director of the Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa Program, and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.