Georgetown Law students participating in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic found during their spring break trip to Uganda that even Ugandan law students were closely following recent events at Georgetown.
“One law student we spoke with asked me if I personally knew Sandra Fluke,” said Elizabeth Hira, 2L.
Hira and six other students in the clinic conducted a fact-finding mission in Uganda over spring break researching women’s access to reproductive healthcare as well as Ugandan customary marriage practices, including polygamy, child marriage, and bride price, before the trip.
Students interviewed more than 80 individuals, including government ministers, judges, lawyers, doctors, officials at U.N. agencies, and nonprofit experts as well as men and women in polygamous marriages, about their experiences with family planning and marriage practices.
During their interviews, students were encouraged to use provisions included in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international treaties to advance women’s rights related to their research topics.
“I was shocked to find that the issues women in Uganda are dealing with are the same as in the United States,” said Hira. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that arguments using international law effective in the U.S. are also actively used in Uganda.”
“As a member of the clinic who worked on access to reproductive rights, these issues resonate with the Georgetown community right now with the [lack of] ability of students to get access to contraceptives because of Georgetown’s policy,” said Avy Mallik, 3L. “The clinic allowed me to see problems that countries have which are less inclined to recognize the right to access reproductive healthcare.”
Indeed, Clinic Director Professor Susan Deller Ross founded the clinic in 1999 after hearing from the students in the Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa (LAWA) program at Georgetown Law that women in African countries, much like women in U.S., struggle to overturn laws infringing upon their rights in areas such as family law and inheritance.
“While teaching International and Comparative Law on Women’s Human Rights, my African students started telling me about the laws on the books that were very oppressive to women,” said Ross. “I realized that they were similar to the oppressive laws that we fought in the U.S.”
“I began to get the idea of using human rights treaties as a new tool to get legal changes in African countries to address all of the inequities that women face.”
The clinic has collaborated with Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda (LAW-U), an organization of alums of the LAWA program, on several projects. In 2004, the clinic spring project focused on eliminating discrimination against women in Uganda’s inheritance laws and on female genital mutilation. During the following semester, clinic students worked with LAW-U, including with a clinic alum to develop test-case litigation challenging the discrimination in both the inheritance and criminal adultery laws.
LAW-U subsequently filed the lawsuits in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, and won both cases in 2007. The Court ruled the existing inheritance laws discriminated against women and were unconstitutional.
Included among the provisions struck down were sections of the Succession Act that preferred a male heir to a female heir; gave the father, but not the mother, the right to appoint a guardian of his children through a will; and prevented female relatives from being appointed as statutory guardians, but giving the right to male relatives.
The clinic has also worked on projects in Kenya, Namibia, Ghana, Swaziland, and Poland.
In addition to LAW-U, the clinic is also partnered with the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“Legal change is slow, but in Uganda, we have had so many successes,” said Ross. “Our partner has won lawsuits against three of the laws that we targeted—divorce, criminal adultery, and inheritance.” She cited recently passed laws banning the practice of female genital mutilation as well as protecting women from domestic violence and employment discrimination, all of which have been the subjects of previous student projects, as examples of the clinics progress in women’s rights advocacy.
The clinic provides students who are interested in careers in international human rights law with hands on experience in the field.
“Along with the human rights fact-finding seminar, the clinic is one of only a few ways in which students can conduct a fact-finding investigation while still in law school,” said Lisa De Gray, 3L.
Kiera Bloore, 2L, agreed. “Over the course of the week, I learned how to obtain the information I needed while not asking leading questions,” she said. “These are important skills for a lawyer to have and ones my other classes do not cover.”
During the trip, Hira realized that her clinic research made her an expert in the area of reproductive healthcare law. “We put a ton of work in, and it was sometimes frustrating, but I was amazed that when we were sitting before people working in the law and I realized that they didn’t know the status of the law,” she said.
“A good lawyer is a unique asset in pushing for reform, whether legal or not,” said Hira.
Clinic participants will use interviews from their trip to support human rights reports and legislative proposals. Although still in the process of drafting their reports, they have observed general trends that emerged in their interviews.
“[One] thing that struck me was how much the children of polygamous parents resented the lack of attention from their father,” said Ross.
Mallik noted that he realized through the clinic’s work in Uganda that HIV/AIDS has a severe disproportionate impact on women.
“Women are more susceptible to HIV/AIDS; that is exhibited at higher rates in terms of the higher rate of infection among women, but also, HIV rates create a higher burden on women who may be keeping the family together,” said Mallik.
The trip helped students understand the cultural issues with which they have been grappling throughout the semester.
De Gray said, “I really enjoyed speaking with a wide range of people—government officials, members of civil society organizations, and everyday citizens—and gaining a greater understanding of Ugandan culture and the issues and laws we’re working on.”