The Women’s Legal Centre operational despite Covid-19
Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc globally forcing people to stay home and contributing to the closure of businesses on an unprecedented scale. One local organisation however is not only managing to keep their doors open, but also continuing with the pioneering work that they’ve become known for. The Women’s Legal Centre is an African feminist legal centre striving to advance women’s rights and equality using tools such as litigation, advocacy, education, advice, and training. Even before President Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown, the staff of the Women’s Legal Centre were in the final stages of moving from their office in Adderley Street to be operational off-site.
Director, Seehaam Samaai, says that while they knew there would be challenges they planned as best they could in an ever-changing environment that has become life under the global pandemic. Their first order of business was to ensure the staff were all set up within their home environment with access to the internet and a phone line. They purchased equipment, data and airtime to get their staff to be mobile yet connected. The Centre staff knew that the effects of Covid-19 would resonate in our communities long after lockdown and it was important to build structures which would be able to assist women with their basic needs of food, safety and security, access to health, education for children, access to work, etc.
Their first order of business was to set up a virtual network where they could consult with clients online as well as a WhatsApp line to liaise directly with those who need it most. Thereafter, to set up a hotline with other social justice organisations and to build on the strengths of their existing networks to access communities directly. Consultations and legal advice were provided notwithstanding the limitations of the Regulations and Directives that did not allow attorneys to operate unless the local legal practice counsel considered the matter was enrolled and urgent. The interpretation of the regulations were very restrictive and it had a disproportionate effect on women who have been sexually violated and those who were stuck with their abusers at home. WLC made submissions to the Minister of Justice & Constitutional Development and engaged with various social justice organisations who all forwarded submissions to highlight the impact of the regulations on the poor and vulnerable to access justice and the courts.
National government implemented stage 5 lockdown confining people to their homes, limiting movement and only allowing the operation of essential services. Rules and regulations came into being overnight and many people were often at a loss for trying to understand exactly what their rights were. The Women’s Legal Centre published an information booklet that explains the rights of citizens as well as outlining what exactly essential services are, who they are and what people can do to register and become accredited.
As the rules and regulations began being implemented there were reports of the police and army often taking a heavy-handed approach. Once again, the Women’s Legal Centre published a toolkit that was aimed at knowing your rights around Covid-19 as well as how to lay a complaint and who to contact when doing so.
When the City of Cape Town set up the shelter for homeless people in Strandfontein in terms of the Covid-19 Regulations, the lawyers of The Women’s Legal Centre were called upon after an incident of sexual violence was reported. Through their community activist support, the women rights’ activists (who are the true defenders within their communities ) stepped in and ensured that the victim received counselling as well as moved to a place of safety. They were alerted to the appalling conditions that the homeless were living under at the Strandfontein shelter. The City refused WLC access to the site to consult with any other women who may need legal assistance. WLC strongly believes that basic rights such as having access to a lawyer, must continue to be available, especially during these times. According to the City, the shelter will be closed by 20 May. Civil society organisations including the Women’s Legal Centre have indicated that this decision by the City is irrational without a proper post integration plan in place reintroducing the homeless back into society. WLC is also very concerned about the lack of concrete plans that address issues of health, safety, and security for future sites to deal with the homeless and people who will be accommodated in these types of facilities for quarantine.
The lawyers of the Women’s Legal Centre are a group of dedicated feminists who live their passion through the work they do. As the lockdown was extended, issues around access to and distribution of food came to the forefront. A loss of income for many families meant they were now without basic essentials. Enter the Women’s Legal Centre and together with a group of 20 community-based organisations they led submissions to the minister of police on granting these community-based organisations a framework to work under when dealing with food security. The matter is before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Safety and Security and the Police Select Committee. If successful, it will allow for community-based organisations and community workers who are mostly women, to partner with the government in ensuring food gets delivered to the most vulnerable.
The Women’s Legal Centre remains open for business, fulfilling their mandate to serve women and children, regardless of the circumstances. They can be reached on 079 421 8197 or via email at email@example.com
The national legal hotline number is 066 076 8845 and it is managed by Lawyers for Human Rights on behalf of all the social justice legal organisations.
To arrange an interview, please contact Ru du Toit on 079 990 2494 or firstname.lastname@example.org