The Equality Effect uses international human rights law as a crowbar to pry open justice for women and girls around the world. Drawing on a team of feisty international lawyers, the Equality Effect supports its regional legal partners to make women’s and girls’ rights real. This goal is achieved by conducting legal research, collecting evidence, and developing test case litigation. In Kenya, we were responsible for a constitutional claim against the government for failing to protect girls who had been raped (the claimants, all victims of rape between 3-17 years of age, are known collectively as the 160 Girls); in May 2013, Kenya’s High Court agreed that the police failure to enforce existing rape laws, and police failure to protect girls from rape, is a violation of domestic, regional, and human rights law.
We are now working to secure the implementation of the High Court’s 160 Girls decision. In an unprecedented partnership, the Equality Effect is working with police, communities, and using the legal system to hold perpetrators accountable for their violence and end a climate of impunity. The work that led to the landmark 160 Girls ruling will inform our newest project in Malawi that also seeks justice for victims of rape.
As three-time Amnesty International award-winner and author Sally Armstrong writes: “Once, in a very long while, maybe once in a lifetime, you get to witness a story that shifts the way an entire country or continent sees itself. The process of change is usually daring, certainly time-consuming, invariably costly, occasionally heart-breaking, and eventually an exercise so rewarding that it is the stuff of legends; this is the story of the Equality Effect.”
Through her organization, Equality Effect (EE), Fiona is convening a network of social workers, activists, lawyers and academics across Kenya, Malawi, Ghana, the United Kingdom, and Canada. With this network, Fiona is sourcing a new way for lawyers to address incidents of sexual assault against women around the world. Putting an end to the inaction of current systems that fail to protect the rights of women, Fiona is creating the foundation for in-country legal remedies which ensure that laws are enforced without delay or discrimination.
Now Fiona is formulating a system of knowledge exchange and best practices, aimed at internationally unified legal reform. Through her robust network of predominately women advocates, lawyers and academics, Fiona is building the legal foundations and support systems needed to provide victims of gender-based violence, rape, and defilement access to justice within their home countries. She is ensuring that all women’s rights are upheld and all laws designed for protection are enforced.
The problem stems partially from established mindsets that see women as property rather than persons. For example, because of local customary laws, in many regions in Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana, women are unable to hold property, run for office, own a business, or attend school; they are often forced into early marriage. Adding to the continued oppression and devaluation of women is the failure of current government systems to bring legal action against and convict perpetrators of violence against women, even where laws are in place to protect their rights. Oxfam Canada’s 16 Facts About Gender-Based Violence confirms that laws to promote gender equality are often not applied and, more often than not, perpetrators go unpunished.
Refusal by local law enforcement to investigate or bring charges against alleged instances of assault is even more common in areas where violating the rights of women and girls is systemically accepted. This indifference to bring perpetrators to justice creates a global atmosphere in which women are reluctant to report acts of violence to local law officials. In Kenya, although 49 percent of women claim to have experienced violence within their lifetimes, only 30 percent reported it to authorities and just one-third of these cases are ever brought to court (Chatelaine.com, Sept 2011).
The story is similar within aboriginal communities throughout Canada. In 2009, nearly 67,000 or 13 percent of aboriginal women, claimed that they had been victims of both domestic and non-domestic violence (Statistics Canada—Violent Victimization of Aboriginal Women in Canadian Provinces, 2009), yet 76 percent indicated that they did not report the violence to local law enforcement.
While most constitutions protect the rights of women, there is a considerable and historical gap between the letter of the law and its implementation. In addition, cultural norms tend to bias the law enforcement system and women’s reliance on it to protect their rights.
Through public law education, Fiona and the EE identify victims of rape and defilement through social workers and local community activists who are network members. Geographically, culturally, and contextually relevant legal education is then provided to the victims to make the law less intimidating and more accessible. They do this by employing local artists and social workers to communicate messages of justice that victims as young as four may understand. There is also the creation of peer-support groups to further help victims understand what has happened to them and what legal remedies are available. This simple combination of education and peer-support is designed to bring each person to a point where they are confident and can make a self-directed decision to seek justice through legal measures.
Once victims have made the decision to seek justice, other experts of Fiona’s network spring into action. The social workers begin to work closer with the victims, now thought to be legal petitioners, to collect the stories and evidence needed to file a suit against the local law enforcement system which failed to provide justice to the victims at the time of their assault or failed to initially protect the women. A plan for domestic litigation is then created, using lawyers from countries that practice common law and where successful similar litigation has occurred, such as the 1986, case of Jane Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto Commissioners of Police. These lawyers act as “lead advisors” to lawyers from the petitioners’ home country where the claims will be filed. Understanding the historical nuances of British colonization, and respecting the tensions of what may be mistaken as meddling in now independent countries. The EE is careful of the roles that each member plays. It is the final decision of lawyers within the home country (of which they are citizens) to identify which cases are contextually and culturally “most” transferable and acceptable. Remaining network members, including academics and literary experts from all participating countries, work together to “fill in the gaps,” to develop a highly tailored and unique legal strategy that leverages the precedent from similar common law countries around the world, but remains culturally relevant.
Fiona piloted this approach in 2010 with a case in Kenya. Her purpose in focusing on Kenya was to pull the best practices and document both the successes and the failures of a concept that had never been attempted. The intention, to create a “litigation in a box” toolkit that could be applied to other countries in her scale strategy. With Canadian “lead advisors,” Kenyan lawyers representing petitioners, a founding shelter in the Kenyan region of Meru and a fortified partnership with local champions of women’s rights, the EE enabled 160 young girls and guardians to seek justice for acts of sexual assault committed against them and/or family members. What would ultimately be called the “160 Girls Project” grew to more than 200 petitioners in 2012, a dramatically significant number of girls when one considers the stigma and shame that is often associated with sexual assault and too often prevents them from coming forward. In February of 2013, a landmark ruling made by the Kenyan courts ruled in favor of all 200 petitioners. In essence, the ruling articulated that Kenyan police were responsible for creating a climate of impunity that allowed perpetrators of defilement and rape to believe that they would not be held responsible for their actions; and that the Kenyan government was in violation of domestic, regional, and international human rights law set to protect women.
The success of EE’s growing network has entered a new chapter. The litigation in a box methodology will be applied to Ghana and Malawi, with Kenyan lawyers acting as lead advisors. Fiona expects that the time between the identification of petitioners and a court ruling will be drastically decreased due to knowledge capture from the pilot project. The “160 Girls Project” is already being applied by some Canadian law professors (and members of the EE network) to reform how law students are taught to engage and apply the law.
In Kenya, the focus is on policy and practices reform, as well as broader permeation of EE rulings in the public sphere. The ruling means that all petitioners must have their cases reopened and investigated to the standards outlined by the Constitution of Kenya, while any future cases must be handled with the same standards. Fiona knows that this does not translate into an overnight change in behavior or practice, but she believes she has the legal standing to secure enforcement and is using this as a stepping stone to design processes and recommendations on how to reform the law enforcement system to ensure the rulings are implemented. Additionally, Fiona together with EE is preparing a national communications campaign to educate the broader Kenyan public about the ruling, what it means, and how it can be used to access justice by any individual. She has already secured pro bono advertising support from international advertising agency BBDO to help launch and run the communications campaign. This national campaign strategy also includes the engagement of Kenyan Olympic athletes partnered with the original petitioners to change their public image and combat stigma; moving their public persona from victims to victors.
Despite Fiona’s expertise and formal training as a lawyer, she has rejected the role of legal consultant in EE, suspending her practice as a lawyer, unless it is tied to the work of EE. Instead, Fiona has established herself as the overall visionary and architect of EE. She actively built the network by leveraging strong personal and professional ties and engaged and strengthened relationships between EE and high profile Canadian and Kenyan journalists, to ensure that the story of EE and the “160 Girls Project” is told in major media publications around the world. Fiona also spearheads fundraising efforts to ensure that the financial and in-kind resources needed to execute what is essentially an expensive project, are readily available. The successes of EE are impressive given their lean operational budget.
Fiona has placed herself in a position of direct contact with all members of the “160 Girls Project” splitting her time between Canada and Kenya to work with both lawyers and social workers. She accompanied victims to report their violations to local law enforcement and acted as both evidence collector and witness when their claims where ignored or leveraged for bribes. As founder and executive director of EE, Fiona sees her role as ensuring that successes in this strategy are not just applied to the direct beneficiaries, but that there is a ripple effect to ensure all women benefit. The ultimate goal is not to change the acts of the perpetrators through direct intervention, but rather to change the system of impunity that allows these acts to go unpunished and thus change behaviors and norms through enforcing consequences.
In the 1970s, while completing her undergraduate degree, Fiona spent her summers volunteering on First Nations reserves in Ontario. Passionate about pursuing a career in law and justice, Fiona interned with legal teams to help establish a case for indigenous land claims. Fiona was instead directed by the Elders to work with children and youth to provide educational programming. Her involvement during the land claims acts of the 1970s provided her with the knowledge and insight to act as a legal consultant with the Ontario Native Council on Justice.
During law school, Fiona was involved with the DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada, Education Wife Assault, and the Ethiopian Muslims Relief and Development Association. While completing her master’s degree in law at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University, Fiona met three students from Malawi, Kenya, and Ghana. All four women were drawn together by their passion for equality rights and each wanted to learn more about the inequities faced by women within each of their home countries. Fiona and her peers joined forces to create an intercountry network of women advocates committed to ending gender inequality and stopping the cycle of violence against women.
After law school, Fiona worked as a staff lawyer and then later as director of litigation at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. She has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada on several occasions to argue various equality rights cases. Fiona has received numerous awards and honors for her social justice initiatives, including being appointed by Order in Council to sit as a Commissioner on the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2009). Fiona holds a PhD in law from York University. Her thesis explored the Supreme Court of Canada’s treatment of gender disability.