“Lady Liberty” is using the law to help vulnerable and marginalised women
By Janet Anderson
In December 2017, HiiL Innovating Justice held the 8th Annual Innovating Justice Forum at the Peace Palace in The Hague. The forum brought together the best and most promising justice entrepreneurs from all over the world. The attendees were selected from a pool of more than 600 justice innovators who participated in the Innovating Justice Challenge 2017.
Through the Annual Innovating Justice Forum and other novel initiatives, HiiL hopes to inspire a groundswell of support and interest in justice entrepreneurship as has been witnessed in the spheres of technology and health. Justice Hub tagged along for December’s forum and caught up with a few of the participants on the sidelines of the event.
In this interview, conducted as part of our long-running #MyJustice series, Justice Hub talks to Samantha N. Ngcolomba, the founder HiiL-backed grassroots project Lady Liberty. The South African legal initiative provides basic legal information and services to vulnerable and marginalized women.
Justice Hub: What does Lady Liberty SA do?
Lady Liberty started out as merely a mobile legal office, and we identified a problem in communities of women just continuously being vulnerable and abused, particularly in family law related matters. And so as it grew, I realised that the need was far too large. I didn't anticipate that it would be that big. I had to start building in a model that included other lawyers in the country. In South Africa every lawyer is mandated to put about 24hrs per annum to pro bono legal services to reach communities, but it does not happen. The law society does nothing about it and it just sort of goes on.
Lady Liberty now has become more of a social justice and advocacy platform. Number one, we take legal information in very simple English, no legal jargon, and also (local) languages that they understand to enable them as best as possible - even when we have left the community - to know what to do.
I want a woman to know what a protection order is, how she can get it.What's a will? How do you put one together? Those sort of basic things.
But the second thing that we've been doing is we have noticed there are some women who have only a vague idea of what the law affords them, but they then can’t afford the services of a lawyer to then take their matter to court. So we then link them and match them to our partner law firms to actually take the matter to court for actual resolution.
And now the third thing is we'd like to look at some real policy reforms as well, because it's the same cases that come up again.
Justice Hub: Could you give us an example?
One big example, which is a surprise to me, is that in the African culture, and this applies mostly to black families, in issues of inheritance, property ownership and rights over children, all of those are given to the male. So whether it's a male in the sense that it's a husband or it's an uncle, father or brother, they don't care. The rights would literally even go to a distant cousin, rather than have a girl, who is the first born child for example, inherit property.
Justice Hub: What are the challenges you face in your work?
The biggest challenge at the moment - that African families don't grow up talking about, so do not even have awareness around it - is wills. They don't have wills in place and what happens? Mum or dad or both dies, property was in their name and automatically, because of this thing called culture, the girls have no chance even if it's a family of three girls, it will go to an uncle or some other distant relative.
What this (male) person then does is they register the property in their name, so the title deed will have a male's name. But the family is told that it's a family home, because the premise is that the male is the protector, the provider, so he holds this as a custodian for the rest of the family. But as human beings will be human beings, they get greedy, they get ideas and sell the property and kick the women off the premises. Women and children ultimately again end up homeless, in shelters and with no idea what the law can do for them.
That's one big issue. We've got hundreds of these cases waiting for resolution on our database. Now the issue is, should we not be looking at a legal reform? As opposed to us going door to door solving the exact same problem again and again. Can we not go to the constitutional court if we have to? And then that one judgement becomes a solution for all these families, because we are inundated with those kind of laws, so that's one example.
Justice Hub: Why the name Lady Liberty?
Funny how it came about. When I started this I just wanted for women to be liberated and I thought “how can I do that?” I have the law in my pocket, so let me use the law as a tool to empower a woman to fight herself out of whatever situation she finds herself in. Then the “lady” angle was actually a colleague’s idea. We were just brainstorming because I knew “liberty” had to be in there somewhere and then she said "but you are focusing on ladies or women so perhaps it's Lady Liberty".
Then we looked at the statue of liberty and what she holds, we just decided that it must be justice scales. It just sort of worked out. The focus is really on liberating women and using the law as a tool to do that. Use the law to fight for yourself because my ultimate belief is that I don't want women to always be dependent. Always dependent on a man, dependent on your family or dependent on one or the other.
I want to ignite something within each person that I encounter for her to think "okay I am capable of fighting for myself, I don’t have a tool, I'm not armed but hey now I know my rights. Now I know that if someone smacks me something’s' wrong and now I know what I can do about it".
Here are other interviews in this series:
This South African innovation is using community radio to link people with justice solutions: https://justicehub.org/article/south-african-innovation-using-community-radio-link-people-justice-solutions
French start-up stakes a claim to being “The search engine for International Law” https://justicehub.org/article/french-start-stakes-claim-being-search-engine-international-law
Ugandan tech initiative is inspiring citizens to know their rights https://justicehub.org/article/ugandan-tech-initiative-inspiring-citizens-know-their-rights
Lawyers 4 farmers: How a Ugandan legal initiative is helping an underserved community