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A call for holistic legal assistance for women pursuing justice in Africa

By: Osai Ojigho (Country Director, Nigeria – Amnesty International)

The author presented the contents of this post at the Women’s Forum Panel discussion at the Pan African Lawyers' Union (PALU) 12th Annual Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, on 28 June 2022. The Institute for African Women in Law sponsored the panel.

(Pictured left to right) Moderator: Lulu Ng'wanakilala (Chair, Tanzania Women Lawyers' Association); Panelists: Osai Ojigho (Country Director-Nigeria, Amnesty International), Maame Efua Addadzi-Koom (IAWL Research and Innovation Lead). Not pictured: Anna Chonjo (Partner, Rex Attorneys)

According to Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”

The topic of women’s human rights has gained much recognition in this decade. Several countries have adopted bills of rights in their national constitutions promoting gender equality, enacted laws protecting different aspects of women’s lives such as legislation to punish sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and created specialised mechanisms at the national, regional, and international level on women’s human rights. There is a greater awareness of women’s issues in the present day than ever before; however, there are still many barriers. If I were to choose one main barrier to protecting women's rights today, it would be the lack of holistic legal assistance to pursue justice.

In 2014, I brought Dorothy Njemanze v Nigeria, a case of gender discrimination and gender-based violence before the ECOWAS Court of Justice with other partners to challenge state agents’ abuse of women in Abuja, Nigeria. This led to the first judgment on the Maputo Protocol by a regional court in 2017. The court held that the treatment experienced by the women was in violation of their rights to be protected against violence as provided in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa i.e. the Maputo Protocol. I have also authored about the challenges and lessons learnt from litigating gender-based violence and discrimination through my work with the survivors of such state-sponsored attacks and why strategic litigation can be a transformative tool for gender justice and women’s human rights. One major source of support for victims and survivors of SGBV is legal assistance.

Legal assistance is often presented as a provision of legal services and advice through a lawyer, support for transportation to be in court, and financial payment of legal fees and costs. Based on my experience, legal assistance needs to anticipate and cover all aspects that a woman claimant needs to fully participate in legal proceedings where she is demanding protection of her rights and justice for the violations committed against her. Holistic legal assistance would address the issues of paid time off, paid childcare, time poverty, post-judgment costs, and emotional, psychosocial and mental support.

Women tend to be the ones with the least time to set aside when pursuing justice. They are often the primary caregivers at home, managing domestic chores, and attending to other work outside of the home. In order to participate in the judicial system, many women have to take time off and travel away from their homes to offer evidence and appear as witnesses in court proceedings. This is an expensive endeavour – especially for women in the informal sector who have to work daily to make an income in low-paying jobs with very little flexibility or inadequate paid time off that affords them the ability to pursue justice. For example, for those working in farming communities, taking a day off to travel to be in court means having to pay someone else to work on their farm or harvest their produce. Inability to do so means they are running at a loss.

The responsibility of childcare still falls on women in many cases; therefore, paid childcare is critical. In our proposals for strategic litigation in demanding justice for women’s rights, we have to factor in allowances for childcare. For example, if women have to appear in cases in regional mechanisms away from their countries, we must include provisions for a child to travel with their mother – especially if the child is being breastfed or weaned – or for a nanny to look after a child while their mothers attend to court proceedings. These practical arrangements are necessary to assist women in fully participating in their pursuit of justice.

Moreover, how much thought is placed on life after the judgment? These women’s lives have been transformed in ways we cannot imagine and the euphoria of winning soon turns to “What do I do now? I have gotten a decision from the African Commission on human and peoples’ rights, so what?”

While, as lawyers, we think of decision enforcement; for women claimants, what could be more imminent is how they can make up for the lost opportunities at work and the need to earn an income or set up a business to fend for themselves and their families. Pursuing justice can take a long time so we need to have funds and training sessions factored into our legal assistance to provide a buffer to pick up their lives and begin to be productive citizens again. In sexual harassment cases, one would find that a successful decision can become a double-edged sword. In the Akindele case, involving a Professor at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) in Nigeria who was found guilty of sex for grades, the young woman involved has reportedly complained of difficulties in getting a job as a result of her association with the sexual harassment case and her certificate is yet to be released. A concerted advocacy intervention by women’s groups, lawyers’ associations, and relevant bodies such as the Ministry of Education and the media is required to ensure that justice is served in this case. Failing to do so would lead to stigma and demonisation of survivors in similar cases in the future.

Tackling issues of great importance to women’s rights begins with an understanding and appreciation of the needs of those whose rights have been violated. As lawyers and law service providers, it is essential that our services showcase both the technical and practical solutions to secure effective justice delivery. Anything less amounts to half-baked resolutions leading to stalemates or disillusionment for the survivors and their families and communities.


Osai Ojigho is a human rights and gender equality advocate, lawyer, civil society leader, and the Country Director for Nigeria – Amnesty International. She is also a Life Member of the Pan African Lawyers' Union (PALU).


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