The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) is an independently funded law centre, which conducts public interest and constitutional gender litigation in partnership with the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).
The WLC is staffed by attorneys who specialize in gender law and have extensive litigation experience. Their offices are based in Cape Town and Johannesburg and a satellite office in Khayelitsha (an informal settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town) and they have been operating for 15 years.
What is the mission, mandate and goals of your organisation?
The WLC has a vision of women in South Africa living free from violence in safe housing, free to own their own share of property, empowered to ensure their own reproductive health rights and able to work in a safe and equal environment.
In order to fulfil its objectives the WLC will, free of charge, litigate cases which advance women's rights and are in the public interest, particularly constitutional cases. We also produce briefs to assist courts in constitutional cases which concern women's rights and gender equality. In addition, we provide free legal advice to women and girls, and engage in advocacy campaigns and activities that advance women's rights. Where resources permit, the WLC also aims to provide women's organisations with technical legal assistance in making submissions to parliament and other institutions.
Over the last 15 years we have built specific expertise in this area and as a result we now occupy a critical and strategic position in the sector.
How does your organisation make African Women count?
The main purpose of the WLC is to advance and protect the rights of women in South Africa, particularly black women, who suffer many different and intersecting forms of disadvantage and systemic discrimination.
The WLC works at a national level in South Africa, and our work also spills over into the region. The demographics of our beneficiaries reflect the demographics of the country. We are committed to the transformation of the legal profession, and our legal training, paralegal and candidate attorney programmes are aimed at building the capacity of African women who wish to join the fight for gender equality.
What are your main successes as an organisation?
Through impact litigation, we have been involved in many groundbreaking judgements which has had a positive impact on women.
The WLC has been at the forefront of legal reform in relation to women’s equality since the Constitution came into effect, having won several precedent setting cases since its inception. Over the last three years the WLC has successfully represented clients or assisted the court as a friend of the court in:
- Striking out provisions of the Sexual Offences Act that discriminate against girl children and discourage them from reporting rape and accessing health services;
- Obtaining a structural order in the High Court that the state report to the Court within 18 months on its progress in relation to legislation that recognises Muslim marriages;
- Declaring that the consent of the first wife is required in polygynous customary marriages, and that the husband’s failure to register a contract does not invalidate a second marriage;
- Obtaining an order amending the legislation to the effect that the Post Office Pension Fund is obliged to allow women to access their share of their ex-spouse’s pension interest on divorce and not have to wait until the ex husband retires;
- Making submissions on the interpretation of the Sexual Offences Act to ensure that convictions for sexual offences are not thrown out for technical reasons;
- Defending the extension of the duty in relation to vicarious liability of the state for police officers on stand-by duty who commit rapes.
The WLC is the only NGO that focuses only on the advancement of women’s rights through impact litigation. Over the last 15 years we have built specific expertise in this area and as a result we now occupy a critical and strategic position in the sector.
The WLC received the following awards:
2001: Women Demand Dignity White Ribbon Award for Making a Difference to End Violence against Women and Children.
2005 Women Lawyers of South Africa in Recognition of Contributions to Justice and The Legal Profession from the California Association of Black Lawyers, California Women Lawyer’s and the State Bar of California.
2009 Peter and Patricia Gruber International Women’s Rights Prize (joint winner)
- The WLC has a memorandum of understanding with the Commission for Gender Equality, which has mandate as its mandate as entrenched in Section 187(1) of the Constitution of South Africa the Commission must promote respect for gender equality and the protection, development and attainment of gender equality (Section 187(2) grants the Commission “the power, as regulated by national legislation, necessary to perform its functions, including the power to monitor, investigate, research, educate, lobby, advise and report on issues concerning gender equality”).
- The CGE is set up in terms of Chapter Nine of the Constitution and its role is to advance gender equality in all spheres of society and make recommendations on any legislation affecting the status of women. The WLC and CGE have agreed to cooperate on issues in the WLC focus areas.
- The WLC has observer status with the African Commission
- The WLC is part of the Women Inheritance Now Network which is a regional organisation looking at enhancing women’s economic empowerment through a strengthened framework on property and inheritance rights in Africa.
- The WLC has entered into formal partnerships with the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJCD).
- In terms of the WLC and DOJCD agreement the WLC will (in partnership with private firms) make attorneys available to provide free legal advice at a help desk at the Cape Town Family Court. This has enabled us to extend our reach to the courts (where many of the poor service delivery issues are experienced).
- On the Steering Committee for Asijiki Coalition. The coalition was formed to advanced the advocacy strategies geared towards the decriminalisation of sex work;
- WLC is on the Legal and Human Rights Technical Taskteam of the South African National Aids Council
- On theTechnical Committee for the National Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Framework Strategy.
- WLC is part of the South African National Aids Council Women’s Sector expert group.
- WLC is also part of the global legal and advocacy working group on forced and coerced sterilisation.
- Our informal partnerships with other organisations include: Rape Crisis Cape Town, Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre, People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA), SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), Sisonke, Simela (a support service for rape survivors), Network Against Violence Against Women, Western Cape Shelter Movement, Women on Farms, Triangle Project and Gender Dynamix
What are the main challenges you face?
Like any Ngo, financial constraints limit the extent of achieving your objective to the extent that you would like.
Bearing in mind that the women we seek to assist are women in South Africa who suffer from multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and the issues they are confronted with are of a sensitive nature, it is challenging to create social awareness among this vulnerable group.
So, also the stakeholders that we engage with to make change are not always co-operative.
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