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2009 Women's Rights Prize

Women's Legal Centre

Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), located in Cape Town, South Africa, was founded in 1998 to advance the human rights of African women – black women in particular – through a combination of litigation, advocacy training, and awareness-raising. For WLC, advocacy and law reform processes constitute the first point of engagement on an issue; if they are not successful, litigation is considered. If the organization receives a positive judgment, it will then train communities and other organizations about the rights that women have won, the underlying causes in society that resulted in their not having those rights, the value of those rights now that they have been won, how to exercise them, and how they contribute to empowering women. Even when litigating a particular case or engaging in a specific campaign, WLC is constantly framing its arguments and seeking, through communication and media training, to put in context women’s rights and the power relationship between men and women and to explain the rationale for a particular case, the remedies being sought, and the likely impact on women’s roles in society. Underlying the plight of many African women is the existence of a dual legal system that includes laws that have historically governed matters such as marriage and the ownership of property, as well as civil law introduced by colonial powers. WLC seeks to incorporate a rights-based system into African culture. Since its founding in 1998, it has successfully challenged primogeniture rules, thus enabling a female to inherit from her father; discriminatory provisions of law relating to intestate succession, enabling a woman to inherit from her spouse in both monogamous and polygynous Islamic marriages; provisions preventing a woman from claiming damages when injured by the actions of her spouse in a motor vehicle accident; discriminatory remnants in the law that precluded a woman in a polygynous marriage from claiming loss of support when her husband died; and provisions in the law preventing a survivor of child abuse from claiming damages. WLC has also helped to place stricter obligations on employers to keep discrimination in the form of sexual harassment out of the workplace. The organization has made significant progress in developing the state’s duty of care in enforcing a woman’s right to be free from violence and has participated in successfully defending legal challenges to the right to reproductive healthcare. It is focusing on five strategic areas in the 2008-10 timeframe: violence against women, fair access to resources in relationships, access to land/housing, access to fair labor practices, and access to health (particularly reproductive health).

Being a litigant and an advocate for law reform in relation to women’s rights has sometimes put WLC in conflict with traditional religious practices. Although the organization generally enjoys community support, it has drawn the ire of groups that oppose interference in certain areas and believe that nongovernmental organizations should steer clear of these types of reform. WLC is satisfied with the fair hearing it has received from the courts and some of the excellent judgments – sometimes criticized by conservative groups – in which the courts have protected women’s rights, particularly those in which the duty of the state to recognize and protect those rights has been affirmed. In other judgments, however, the courts have been reluctant to go as far as WLC would have liked them to go toward protecting the rights of women in South Africa. The lack of urgency that the state has shown in its implementation of certain rights presents a challenge for WLC as well. In those instances where the state has been slow or otherwise reluctant to give effect to certain rights in the everyday lives of women, progress can be nonexistent, even after a full decade of law reform efforts. WLC has then turned to the Constitutional Court to enforce women’s rights to equality and freedom from violence that are enshrined in the South African constitution.

WLC’s approach, especially in relation to polygynous marriages, has been to recognize that many women in Africa are living in these relationships. For many it is a choice, but for most it is an economic imperative. For the time being, WLC considers it to be the better approach to work to give women equal protection within those relationships; if women continue to be discriminated against even with regulations in place, a challenge based on the right to equality contained in comparative law and the international instruments ratified by South Africa would be considered. Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of WLC has been to enable thousands of women who previously couldn’t inherit under customary law in South Africa to do so. WLC has also succeeded in extending the duty of the state in relation to women who are survivors of sexual offenses, with the state now required to take positive steps to prevent abuse from happening.