MEDIA STATEMENT: HUMAN RIGHTS DAY: LOOKING BACK, MOVING FORWARD 21 March 2019
Equality is one of the substantive rights enshrined in our Constitution, which is praised for being one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in terms of socio-economic and human rights. It was a struggle for equality which ignited the Sharpeville protests 59 years ago, of which we remember, and honour, the 69 protestors who were killed in the Sharpeville massacre. The right to Equality provides that no person may be unfairly discriminated against based on sex, race, gender, sexual orientation etc. Today, 59 years after this incident, and over 20 years into our democracy, despite a progressive and comprehensive constitution which should protect us, this sense of equality is still not felt. Many people face grave violations of their rights, especially womxn, who face significant amounts of violence, abuse and discrimination on a daily basis. Additionally, while there has been progress in the legal system with regard to womxn’s rights, there are still major problems with womxn’s access to legal services. It is these dynamics which informed the very formation of the Women’s Legal Centre 20 years ago.
This year, the Women’s Legal Centre is celebrating 20 years of fighting for womxn’s rights, putting womxn first, and assisting womxn in empowering themselves in their daily lived realities. In light of the patriarchal society we live in, which is isolating for womxn in many ways, especially the legal system, we reaffirm the need for an African Feminist Legal Centre which caters specifically to the needs of womxn, especially black womxn. We take the opportunity to introduce our 20th anniversary theme to you, which is to celebrate “Activism in Feminist Lawyering.” Over the next few months, we will be looking back on our victories, as well as exploring and celebrating what Activism in Feminist Lawyering means. . We are often told that activism and lawyering are mutually exclusive, yet when lawyering for human rights, activism becomes an integral aspect of lawyering. While the courts are the platform, the law is the tool to advance the rights of womxn. Gender neutrality in our policies and laws has a disproportionate impact on black womxn, which is why it is so important for feminist lawyers to bring the lived realities of womxn before the courts. In the process of litigating a feminist and gendered viewpoint, feminist litigators can make use of several methods in order place their arguments before a court.
These include critiquing the law so as to identify the assumptions that underlie certain laws/rules, as well as what the implications of these laws are/will be on womxn, identifying and revealing how womxn’s perspectives are often not accounted for within legal principles/laws/rules, and providing a platform for womxn’s voices and lived realities to be heard and hopefully understoodi.
To be successful in advancing womxn’s rights, we often have to dig deeper than only using legal processes as a means to attain justice, and merge this with activist methods of advancing rights. In remembering Sharpeville, we recognize and remember the important role that activism plays in achieving change. We have to question the legal system when it oppresses, instead of uplifting, womxn. To be a lawyer fighting for womxn’s rights IS to be engaging in activism.
On Human Rights Day today, we remember why womxn’s rights are important in our country. We want to advance womxn’s rights to dignity, safety, and most importantly, equality. We want womxn to live free from the fear of rape, free from the fear of violence domestically and externally, free from the fear of harm. We want womxn to stop being taken advantage of in a system which has been built to favor men – in the workplace, in the home, in the legal system, and beyond. We want womxn to be afforded rights in spaces and contexts where rights should be afforded to them, but are absent.
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