For International Women’s Day this year, we sat down with our dynamic Executive Director, Antonia Mulvey, to find out more about the woman who started Legal Action Worldwide and her unique vision for the realisation of human rights for vulnerable people living in fragile and conflict-affected areas around the world.
First of all, Happy International Women’s Day. What does this day mean to you and what is its significance for the work of Legal Action Worldwide?
Happy International Women’s Day to you too. This day remains important for a whole range of reasons. In addition to highlighting the injustices that women around the world must tackle on a daily basis, we celebrate the fantastic progress women have made, even when faced with huge obstacles, such as conflict, displacement and stigma. For me, International Women’s Day is about thinking creatively about how we can address these systemic issues – how can we use the tools available to us and change things for the better.
And that’s what we’re doing at LAW. Many of the underlying issues that have a significant impact on women and girls are rooted in the existing legal framework. LAW looks to address these through creative legal solutions – this could be through a strategic case, advocating for a change in the law or by enabling civil society to use international law to their advantage. International Women’s Day serves to remind us that a little creative thinking can go a long way when it comes to the rights of women.
Speaking of IWD, the theme for this year is #PressforProgress. What does this mean for the work that you lead and in what areas do you see there being the greatest need to #PressforProgress ?
I think the #PressforProgress idea really aligns with LAW’s philosophy of thinking and acting creatively in order to achieve change in seemingly intractable areas. We must call out those areas in which gross violations of the human rights of women and girls are still occurring and be fearless and impact-driven in our efforts. This is evident in LAW’s work on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C).
According to UNFPA, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM/C across 30 countries. 3 million girls each year experience some form of FGM each year – it is predicted that this will rise to 4.6 million each year by 2030. While there have been some significant steps in addressing FGM/C, progress has been slow, piecemeal, and there are still countries where the rates remain astoundingly high. In Somalia, 98% of women between 15 and 49 have been cut.
We must #PressforProgress in addressing FGM/C.
That’s why LAW is seeking to redefine FGM/C as a form of torture under international law, and in some circumstances, an international crime. To date, there has been no legal case that has done this. In addition to giving a ‘face’ to the vast numbers of survivors and showing justice can be obtained, successfully framing FGM/C as torture places positive obligations on states. These include the effective prohibition of FGM/C, but also access to appropriate healthcare, and potentially even compensation for survivors. Ultimately, defining FGM/C as torture and as an international crime brings us closer to the ultimate goal: the absolute protection of women and girls from FGM/C.
LAW is celebrating 5 years since its establishment in June this year. What was your vision when you first set out to establish LAW and how has that evolved (if at all) over time?
When I first established LAW, my vision was to address situations I had seen in fragile and conflict-affected areas, where gross human rights violations and international crimes were occurring with impunity because of the breakdown in the rule of law, absence of functioning legal institutions and precarious humanitarian or security environments. Sometimes this meant that security considerations took precedence or attracted attention away from serious abuses that would have been noticed and addressed had they happened elsewhere. LAW has four pillars of action: as a think-tank for creative lawyering; the provision of legal assistance and empowerment; strategic casework; and legal advocacy and research.
Initially, LAW’s work focussed on displacement and natural resource exploitation. However, since LAW began, I think we’ve increasingly focused on addressing sexual violence and the incredible needs in this area in places affected by conflict.
What have been your greatest achievements with respect to promoting and protecting women’s rights so far and what is your vision for doing so going forward?
There is much still to be done and our work is constantly evolving, but when I look back, I am proud of the work that I did with the UNDP in establishing the first ever Women Lawyers Network in Somalia, the first female prosecutors and the first sexual assault referral centre. Ten years on, and I am proud to say that those early building blocks culminated in LAW drafting of the first Somali Sexual Offences Bill which we expect to become law in the near future.
Going forward, LAW is working to achieve recognition that Sexual Exploitation and Abuse committed against protected persons by security forces in conflict zones and occupied territories can constitute rape and an international crime. So far, such violations are largely treated as disciplinary matters with little transparency or accountability. There is limited data relating to the extent of such violations or regarding the institutional responses to them. Additionally, the legal complexities and constraints around prosecutions of alleged assaults remain highly problematic.
On International Women’s Day we celebrate the progresses of the women’s movement and the work of the women on whose shoulders we stand in reaching for ever greater heights. Are there particular champions of women’s rights or gender equality that particularly inspired you?
I am inspired and empowered by the resilience of the incredible women, both national lawyers and the female survivors of human rights violations, living and working on the ground in fragile and conflict-affected areas. It takes incredible courage to pursue a case through any legal system, as a survivor of violence and as a human rights defender and so on International Women’s Day, I would especially like to pay tribute to these champions.
It is one thing to be a human rights lawyer in a Western democracy, but it is another thing entirely to do so in a country like in Somalia or South Sudan, where the women I have met and worked with literally put their lives and their own safety on the line to do their job. Being a human rights defender in such places is undoubtedly one of the most difficult jobs in the world.
I would also like to pay tribute to the women in LAW who work alongside and support the advocates on the ground, travelling to places like Mogadishu in furtherance of our work.
You have had a very diverse and interesting career so far, as a lawyer working in human rights, refugee and criminal law practice in the UK, as well as an international human rights lawyer working in the UN system, and now leading your own organisation. You must have encountered so many people in the course of that work who have survived terrible circumstances. Can you share with us any insights into how those experiences have shaped the way you think or approach your work?
I’ve met so many incredible people throughout my career so far who have impacted my work and thinking – and no two stories are ever the same. I think this is why ensuring that our responses to these stories adopt a survivor centred approach – especially in the case of gender-based violence. Ideally the response shouldn’t come directly from an international NGO – but from someone within the survivor’s community who has the best possible understanding of the survivor’s experience. This is why a number of LAW projects centre on equipping national organisations in countries affected by conflict with the skillset required to meet the needs of survivors.
Further, a survivor-centred approach inherently involves a collaborative approach. Survivors of gender-based violence may have spectrum of needs – medical, psycho-social, developmental – as well as legal. It is vital that we work with like-minded organisations in building coalitions that can provide a comprehensive response to survivors.
I’ve recently returned from Bangladesh where I was emboldened and remain incredibly inspired and motivated by the courageous Rohingya women and girls with whom I met and who shared their stories with me.
You can follow Antonia Mulvey on twitter here.