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Taking the law into their own hands: citizens in the South are strengthening access to justice for women, and Canada must support them

By Anne McLellan      

This is a sensitive, potentially dangerous time to be advancing women’s rights. Advocates and elected leaders must continue to be bold. Canada must continue to invest in women in the global South.

Tanzian girls, pictured. The Canadian government has placed the economic and social well-being of women at the centre of its international development goals. Now we must ensure access to justice is a central theme of this strategy, writes Anne McLellan. Photograph courtesy of Flickr
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Tanzania feels like one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. Almost half of all Tanzanian women have faced physical or sexual violence, and while 70 per cent of people live on less than $2 per day, poverty is highest among female headed households. I learned this as I trekked 104 km through the Great African Rift Valley and savannah bush on a charity walk in support of Crossroads International.

Of course, the prevalence of violence against women and girls, is not unique to Tanzania. It is endemic in far too many places in the global South, and quite frankly, around the world. While many countries in the South are making great strides in the development of legislation designed to protect women, their application is weak.

The reality is a law on paper is insufficient to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. It is citizens who must uphold the integrity and accountability of justice systems. Yet without equitable and well-resourced legal systems, this can be overwhelming. This is where Canada can help.

A key difference in how gender-based violence cases are treated in Canada versus the South, is the knowledge, norms, institutions, expertise, and resources in place to secure justice for women and protect their rights.

A woman may have a legal right to security and a constitutional freedom to pursue her ambitions and aspirations, but if in her country there is not a recourse of justice for violations, if police lack the resources to respond to a complaint, if a lawyer lacks the knowledge, experience, or will to effectively apply the law, or if a justice lacks the resources to administer their court, the systems will fail and women will remain threatened.

What impact would #MeToo have if there were not appropriate systems in place to hold perpetrators accountable?

The Canadian government has placed the economic and social well-being of women at the centre of its international development goals. Now we must ensure access to justice is a central theme of this strategy.

Canada can play a meaningful role in supporting the development of justice systems that are accessible to women and survivors of violence. We have good models. We already share our expertise on justice issues with other countries, including when it comes to the development of their constitutions.

There is also much that individual Canadians can do with the support of their government to help women access justice. In Ghana, Canadian lawyers volunteering with Crossroads’ Court Watch program just completed a six-month evaluation of the application of the country’s domestic violence law. While it is considered strong legislation, the evaluators found major limitations, including the fact that only the most severe cases of abuse are prosecuted and that vast majority of these are adjourned or abandoned. They are providing recommendation for improvements

In Tanzania, our group visited one of the first shelters for women fleeing abuse. We heard harrowing stories of violence and were moved by personal accounts of Massai girls who had to flee their families and communities to avoid female genital mutilation. We also witnessed incredible examples of determination and courage. But for me, as a law professor and a former minister of justice in the Government of Canada, it was meeting Tanzanian volunteer paralegals that encouraged me most. Women and men who, thanks to Crossroads and local partners, are learning about the law and working in their communities to help women understand and assert their rights. Just 25 volunteers have reached more than 16,000 people in a short time.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to see first-hand such challenges and solutions. It is important for those of us who have borne witness to share our stories, and for government to communicate the who, why, and how of women’s development policy.

This is a sensitive, potentially dangerous time to be advancing women’s rights. Advocates and elected leaders must continue to be bold. Canada must continue to invest in women in the global South. One of the best ways to do so is by supporting systems that allow women to assert their rights and access justice.

Anne McLellan is the former deputy prime minister of Canada and former minister of justice.

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