PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Navanethem "Navi" Pillay
Former Judge, International Criminal Court (ICC) || International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)
By Jordan Orange
Navanethem (Navi) Pillay was born in South Africa on September 23 1941 to Indian parents of Tamil descent. As a poor Indian South African growing up under apartheid, she faced intersectional layers of hardships and discrimination. This experience eventually fueled much of her professional work. Her father was a bus driver who worked many jobs and her mother stayed home with the children. Education was a priority in her household, and both of her parents were very strict. Pillay’s parents believed in raising all their children equally, educating both their sons and daughters, which was uncommon during this time. Despite her parents’ efforts, apartheid made pursuing opportunities for upward mobility for racially oppressed people extremely difficult. In an interview, Pillay described her upbringing as harsh, as she was forced to overcome the obstacles apartheid presented. Pillay’s parents struggled to provide necessities for their eight children.
After primary school, Pillay became a student in the early 1960s at the University of Natal in South Africa. At the university, she earned both her bachelor's and a law degree. Throughout her time in school, Pillay was active in protests and boycotts against apartheid. After taking some time to practice law, she pursued graduate education and earned a Masters in Law with a concentration in human rights and international law in 1982 from Harvard University. In 1988, she earned a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Harvard Law School, making her the first South African to earn a doctorate in law from the prestigious institution. Pillay also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in May 2015 from Tufts University. Earning degrees from South African and American institutions allowed her to lead a long and impactful career in law.
In 1967, Pillay became the first woman of color to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa. Her motivation to become a human rights activist and a defense attorney for those who were fighting against the apartheid system came from her own experience suffering under the oppressive nature of apartheid. Pillay spent over thirty years of her career defending anti- apartheid activists. She began to expose the uses of torture that many anti-apartheid activists experienced in jail. In 1980, she became a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Around the same time, she became the attorney and conveyancer of the High Court of South Africa.
Her quest for justice fueled her work in support of both women and minority groups. In 1985, Pillay co-founded the international women's rights group called Equality Now. Pillay served as the Vice-President of the University of Durban Westville starting in 1995. She continued to dedicate her life and career to the education of others. During that same year, apartheid ended, and Pillay was appointed as acting judge on the South African High Court. In 1998, she was elected by the UN General Assembly to be a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She served in that position for eight years, serving as the president of the tribunal from Pillay achieved transformative reform while working in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
She contributed to jurisprudence on rape as genocide in the case of Prosecutor v. Akayesu, which was critical for women in Rwanda after the genocide. In 2003, she was appointed as a judge to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Pillay served in the Appeals Chamber until August 2008, when she resigned to take the position of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2008. In this role, she fought for human rights and justice on an international level, advocating for people who were deprived of equal rights under the law. Throughout her career, Pillay achieved significant advancements for black people on the continent of Africa and people around the world.
Pillay made significant contributions to the legal field. She paved the way for women all over the
world. She was the first woman to start a law practice in Natal Province, South Africa, and the first
black woman to serve as a judge on the High Court appointed by President Mandela. She is a
trailblazer for many women who may have thought it was impossible to become a judge of a high
court or a lawyer in a segregated country. Throughout her career, she fought against systems of
racism, discrimination, and hate speech, and fought for justice and human rights for all people.