Gender disparities and the catapult effects on women’s lives and livelihood are a long-standing global concern. These inequalities are rooted in socially constructed and deeply embedded systems that govern our ways of life.  To end these inequalities requires different approaches and strategic litigation has been applied in different countries with each case chipping away at historic gender discrimination to bring us closer to the much-needed social change. 

What is the publication about?

In the publication “Developing a Pool of Feminist Litigators”, the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA) presents evidence from their pilot project, on how the Feminist Litigation Network, first known as the Women’s Human Rights Network (WHRN), does work on the continent to address challenges faced by legal aid service organizations. Often due to their workload, legal aid organisations have insufficient time to focus on strategic litigation. 

“Developing a Pool of Feminist Litigators” examines the work ISLA implemented through the network between February 2017 and December 2019. The network is in line with ISLA’s feminist and pan-African approach to use strategic litigation as a tool for social change challenging the legal discourse on women’s human rights and sexual rights.

There is a need for women lawyers on the continent to be at the forefront of arguing cases that could potentially change gender discriminatory laws. These cases are oftentimes argued by male lawyers who are deemed as being good at human rights lawyering. 

The rationale for this according to Sibongile Ndashe the Executive Director of ISLA was, “women in Africa have been organising themselves to engage with the law as a tool for social change for over three decades but despite this organising, the attrition rate of women lawyers in legal practice is a phenomenon that remains true across the continent.” she adds. “African feminists and women’s rights advocates have led the charge in overturning gender discriminatory laws. Yet, none of these cases were argued by women lawyers”.  

The Feminist Litigation Network was put together after consultations with women’s rights organizations in select countries across the continent, including one-on-one site visits to determine suitability.  ISLA works as an anchor organization for the network and the various national NGOs that conduct strategic litigation with a focus on women’s rights were the hub.

The network saw ISLA enter into partnerships with organizations on the continent who work on women’s rights issues. Partnerships varied and were either core, associate or case development partnerships. The type of partnership was determined by a few factors including financing and a political alignment between ISLA and the partners.

At the start, the WHRN -as known then – was designed to support two programmes; one on violence against women and another on the women’s land and property rights. One of the achievements of the network as cited in the publication is that, the network was able to assist victims of abuse beyond the legal services provided. 

Through the Feminist Litigation Network, ISLA has successfully graduated eight (8) litigators who are now able to practice and apply law with a “feminist lens”. Other achievements of the network include; creating strides in building feminist jurisprudence, a new knowledge of what partnerships work and which ones do not. The network also showed an effective fundraising strategy.

Challenges

The publication notes some challenges in maintaining the network, from financial constraints to the unsuitability of partners that were already engaged and the termination of partnerships like this. Further challenges met were; the difficulties in case sourcing, ISLA also found it difficult for selected litigators in partner organizations to focus on strategic litigation work due to their existing roles at their workplaces.

As evidenced from the publication, litigation and more specifically strategic litigation is an important instrument in ending gender inequality by changing the laws that govern states. 

This publication forms part of critical work in recording and archiving ISLA’s work and in the broader sense can be used as a benchmark by feminist strategic litigators. The network’s work can be a guide for litigators, feminists, activists and organizations and be applied as a point of reference and built upon for future use. It is very clear that strategic litigation can be a vital tool in changing state, domestic and international laws regarding women’s human and sexual rights. Strategic litigation can have a lasting impact on many people especially marginalised communities at the national, regional or international level. 

Kearoma Mosata is a Motswana writer and blogger. She tweets @mido_mosata and reviews books on Instagram @mido_reads