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Event Recap: The Role of Youth in Access to Justice

Credit: David Gough/IRIN

Credit: David Gough/IRIN

Last month, I organized an event with the United Nations Association National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) on “The Role of Youth in Access to Justice.” In many developing and post-conflict countries, the youth population constitutes over 60-70% of the population, yet more needs to be done in the rule of law and legal empowerment sectors to address this issue. The event last month invited two young attorneys from Kenya and Ethiopia to talk about their experiences on promoting access to justice. We also heard from the CEO of the Social Impact Lab Community Interest Company, an organization that uses mobile technology to help people access the justice system.

As a follow up to the event, I am working on a way to map out youth programs in the rule of law sector to determine what’s being done and where the gaps are. If you’d like to help in any way, please let me know! More information will follow once the details are confirmed. Enjoy the summary below!

Cherer Aklilu Shaffo, Former Coordinator for the Women and Children’s Rights Division at the Jimma University Legal Aid Centre and Supervisor to Legal Clinics at Jimma University in Ethiopia

Why Working on Access to Justice was Important in Ethiopia

After finishing law school in 2007, I was employed by my university as an assistant professor to teach in the law school. The violations I have seen were very hard to bear. There were high rates of rape, trafficking, smuggling of people, polygamy and I would say even as a consequence of such problems, there was physical distress and emotional harm. The problem was very much complicated when it came to the case of children and women who had no justice. But this is all very surprising because the country has ratified all the international instruments, all the UN and regional instruments, and has a very modern constitution which ensures the right to social, economic, and political rights of the people so for me it was a paradox to see ok we have all the laws, instruments that protect women and children but no one is actually using them and there’s no way to ensure that these laws are put into practice. So the problem in short, was an access to justice to the organs that are there.

Creating a Mechanism to Address Access to Justice for Women and Youth

Lobbying for policy change or legal change wasn’t necessary. What was necessary for us was to make sure laws are implemented and people are benefiting. So we set up a group for women and children’s rights. We opened a tiny office where people come and they talk about their problems and we tried to show them the procedures to access justice, but still this wasn’t enough because on one hand we don’t have all the necessary mechanisms to tell the people about us. Where we are, our location and what we do and all the services we provide. Therefore, in 2009 we established a community radio to tell people about our services and how they could access us and what help we’re able to offer. That community radio was very helpful and we had students working on it, all young people actually, and we had our staff working on these issues and sometimes we went to social markets and prepared pamphlets and we showed people what  land rights are, what women rights are, and prisoners rights are. We even had an office in prison to serve women prisoners in particular because their conditions were worse. All of us were actually young people who were determined to make change in the small community we have.

Challenges to Working on Access to Justice Programs in Ethiopia

As coordinator I was responsible for making sure we have enough resources to go on and we have enough people to do the work we planned to do. It was difficult responsibility because people don’t give focus to the youth in the first place. They don’t sometimes take you seriously and it is also difficult to work on human rights and access to justice issues in Ethiopia. Even given those difficulties, I tried to establish networks with different organizations working on those issues and then tried to facilitate cooperation to make sure people had access to justice, especially women, because they were particularly being disadvantaged.

I would say my role was also as an organizer for the youth but it was always difficult because in a room full of elderly people, who are the key players in the community, when you stand and talk about women’s rights or children’s rights, they don’t really take you seriously. They don’t want to take your views because they think you don’t know and they want to challenge you because all the practices have been there for years and they’re integrated into the culture and society. So it wasn’t an easily acceptable transformation.

Overcoming the Challenges

But in the meantime we had opportunities because we used technology like the radio and sometimes used other technologies to make connections between us including phone and facebook to facilitate processes. Working in a bureaucratic environment didn’t allow you to go beyond traditional forms of community and it was very hard for young people to make sure others were also involved in the process, but it was an opportunity we had because we’re educated and we can communicate in other languages. We can communicate with other people, and we’re able to reach material and follow new developments. That was an opportunity as a young person to make the changes we desired. Through time we were able to get many people involved in the initiatives and enabled the youth to be part of the solution rather than only maybe being a source of the problem. So in a way we had both opportunities and challenges, but the opportunities are very much prospective than the challenges because the challenges are easy to overcome if you can work and show the changes that you desire.

Sean McDonald, CEO, Social Impact Lab Community Interest Company

I work for a company that produces a software called Frontline SMS.  I came to Frontline SMS by starting a project that was designed to give people access to justice using mobile phones. Being in my early 30s, I’m not sure if I qualify as youth and I always had a hard time figuring out exactly what the rule of law meant. According to the UN in 2008, 4 billion lack access to it and that’s more than half of the population, which is as a point of perspective is terrifying and given the population breakdown that we see is something that immensely affects youth.

Justice is Transforming to a Multi-Platform Rule of Law

One of the other things that’s happening quite a lot that we see is that the definition of justice is changing. The way that we approach the issue of the rule of law has grown to expand into basic services. The way people express themselves, the platform and the medium we are moving closer to is the multi-platform rule of law. What I mean by multi-platform rule of law, is not just that there are wonderful radio programs that educate people, or text message campaigns, or social activism websites or services, it’s also about the fact that basic implementation of rule of law has lots of different platforms. There’s the community level, there’s paralegals and informal methods of justice and dispute resolution and all the way up to formal adversarial adjudication.

My challenge is, and what I spend a lot of time doing, is trying to get us to government by design and I really believe the most effective way to administer justice both for and on behalf of partnership with youth is to involve them meaningfully in a couple of different things. That’s why I started the Frontline SMS legal project.

Mobile Use in the World Today

Just to give a really quick brief on mobile technology generally, there are now well more than 6 billion active mobile connections in the world. We’re expected to reach more than 100% penetration by the end of this year. In 2012, there were 9.4 trillion text messages sent. This comes down to 300,000 a second. Up until recently the Nokia 1100 was the most popular electronics device in human history. That means most of the world communicates through this using digital text messaging and voice mail. If we want access to justice systems and access to justice conversations to reach most people, we have to find ways to communicate through this or the radio, which is another brilliant platform.

How Frontline SMS uses Mobile Technology to Shape Access to Justice

So Frontline SMS is a piece of software that makes it easier to do professional things using text messages. It’s a software platform that operates both on the desktop or on the internet and essentially enables you to do things like construct simple communication, like intake, referral case management, reminders and a whole host of other type of messages, and send them to groups. We’ve seen groups save as much as 97% of their administration times.

In 7 years, we’ve worked in 135 countries with over 100,000 downloads. When people have problems with others, they don’t know what to do. That’s something we see a lot of. What we spend a lot of time on is working with organizations to try and deliver services or information that helps people know what to do when they feel they’re beyond their own means.

Mobile Technology & Access to Justice in Columbia, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Egypt

In Columbia, they organize a network of paralegals that perform mediation and arbitration and when it goes beyond their case load they refer people to the formal system. People walk up to 50 miles to go to a building to get access to a lawyer and they’re not always successful. Similarly, this is a group of community volunteers, who have a large youth component with them, who mobilize to help people walk through water and sanitation rights. With water and sanitation, and riparian rights comes all kinds of disputes and we see youth led campaigning even though youth may not directly have a voice with their vote, they’re able to mobilize the voice of people around them that do and are able to get real meaningful change out of the issues that affect their daily lives the most.

There’s a group called KofaVIV in Haiti. They respond to victims of sexual violence in the IDP camps in Haiti. They have 3000 members and they work with rape victims and literally walk them to hospitals, and then to a lawyer, and psycho-social services, and give them some place to stay. Then they give them a real community afterward and they use mobile phones to coordinate all of that with safety updates.

The other side of this is decision making.  In addition to providing vital services, it’s important to have a youth-led voice in making the decisions in the world that they live in. There’s an organization called Kubatana in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe may not necessarily be the easiest place to have an open conversation about the constitution and Kubatana does some very exciting work with mobile phones and voice components. They’ve handed out flyers that they disguised as wrapping for commercial goods that people sell on the street to circulate a phone number and through it they got thousands and thousands of entries with people who were expressing their hope for Zimbabwe. They got some really powerful voices that they were then able to aggregate and advocate on behalf of the people.

In 2008, in Nigeria with the monitoring of the presidential election, there were a lot of youth voices and youth advocates volunteering their time to look for and provide reporting on basic instances of violence. Sometimes the narratives aren’t even that large. At one point, someone in the government of Egypt came out and said women are never sexually harassed, not once, not ever. As it turns out the women in Egypt somewhat disagreed. Someone set up a map with an SMS based reporting system which allowed women to report every time they felt they were harassed. And while this didn’t turn into a direct service delivery outcome, certainly the government official had a harder time making the same statement again.

This is a group that does youth campaigning. Youth as a campaign voice make an enormous difference. They can lead in radio programs multi-media. They certainly lead in web based technologies. I think there’s a very clear indication around the world that youth are finding ways to assert their voices and digital tools to make a clear difference. What we find is that while we make the tools to help people themselves, we see the most progress from people themselves. Frontline SMS makes tools that are free, easy to use, and easy to download and then we do our best to get out of the way.

Valentine Khaminwa, Compliance Coordinator at Equal Rights Center

Pursuing a Career in Law

I’m going to speak a little bit about my experience working on access to justice issues. I’m originally from Kenya, but I grew up in Zimbabwe. What inspired me to go to law school is that I come from a family of attorneys and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study after high school. I thought with law there is a flexible schedule and there’s a legal connection to everything you do. So I went to law school, I was lucky I went to law school in England, and after studying in the UK, I went back to Zimbabwe.

I worked for an organization called Zimbabwe Women’s Law Association. It’s a small NGO based in Harare, which works to empower women and youth assert their legal rights. It’s a very patriarchal society so we worked on a lot of education initiatives, mobile legal aid clinics focusing on family law, property rights and land rights. This was my first entry into the legal sector and pro bono work and I gained a grassroots experience of human rights issues, especially those in Zimbabwe.

Working on Access to Justice in Zimbabwe

I was working there in 2004-2006 when there was a lot of political repression going on, so it was a real grassroots experience of the hardships that women and youth continued to face. The country was going through an HIV crisis, which was particularly affecting the youth. For me as a young person working at that time, I felt that there were similar stereotypes that Cherer spoke of in Ethiopia, where the older generation is a bit condescending towards the youth and regardless of what their opinions are, they are looked down upon.

But at the same time, I felt that many of the young people prematurely become adults. There are a lot of young people getting married at a very young age, because of various social economic problems. Children take on the roles of adults and with the HIV/AIDS crisis there were many children taking on the roles of adults. So working on access to justice issues with the youth, I saw that many of my constituents saw me as a peer, as opposed to looking down on me as a young person trying to educate them. In that sense, I would say it’s important to involve youth, because in many situations we can serve as peer educators.

Some of the challenges I faced are focused on the cultural perceptions of youth as well as resources and of course enforcement mechanisms. Enforcement related to resources and general governance issues. I think it’s important, to as much as possible, involve youth, because they add a different voice. In Kenya, youth are forming the majority of the population and the majority of the people are less than 30. It’s a large constituency.

Question & Answer Session (The audience asked some great questions and there were very interesting answers in response!)

What can the international community do to help promote more youth initiatives in the rule of law sector?

VK: The provision of resources and the development of the legal system because a lot of times you find that the constitutions in place don’t really have the space for redress. With my experience in Zimbabwe, you have the laws, but most people in rural areas, they abide by customary laws, and those laws are completely different. So you have to find a way to preserve the positive aspects of customary laws which impact youth, but also change the laws that are viewed in a negative way. You can lobby for certain customary negative practices to be abolished.

CS: Another problem is it’s very hard for civil society to work on advocacy, human rights, and access to justice issues because of a law that prohibits them from engaging in such work. It’s just us, the people that are left to fight for justice. In such a case, what I find very important for the international community to do is to be able to integrate the question of justice into different sectors. There are people working in agriculture, institutions working in education, health and so on. They should incorporate the issue of justice, rather than leaving it to issues of human rights or civil society. Whenever they’re able to work in this country, they should think about incorporating justice, rather than leaving it out. Human rights is a very sensitive issue for a place like my country, and the government is very cautious about this issue and civil society are not allowed to work on it. So for other sectors to incorporate that and then to think in a creative way about how to make sure there’s justice and access to justice, particularly through the use of technology in education and the use of information, is important rather than relying on the traditional way of waiting for civil society to go in and make changes.

SM: I would love to see a little bit less focus on normative law and more of a focus on linkages between mechanisms. The work that’s done on community levels is substantially higher in most ways than development actors. With disputes, even to get to the level of invoking legal authority, you have to have escalated past a certain point. And the more infrastructures you lay at the community level, then the more support a formal system is able to give to community level dispute resolution in ways that are productive to everyone.

One of the things we see a lot of is that legal systems are clogged by small claims and very deeply held personal issues, things like landlord tenant court, things like divorces, small territorial disputes, that may not require the formal system and may not be well suited to the money, or freedom or restriction, which is pretty much most of what the formal system can address. So I think that finding formal ways to recognize informal systems in so far as they don’t go too far. There are lots of global systems that aren’t super compliant with the way the rest of the world wants it to be treated. But I think there are great ways to build bridges between systems and I think they can change and improve each other.

What were the messages on the radio that were most effective? How did you address the scope of legal issues that they could seek redress for?

CS: I would say preparing short dramas where people appear as plaintiffs or as people seeking justice in dramas was very attractive. People could listen when in a taxi, bus, or at home. And people are attracted to the stories. We tried advertising, but that could be boring. But dramas were an efficient means of communication. People could recognize similar stories they were going through in the drama.

SM: The anonymity of radio is also very powerful. With legal issues, there’s a private nature, you may not want to identify who you are, and there’s a built in audience to radio programming.

One of the challenges in looking for youth-driven, participatory approach is finding the right leverage points and local partners for a more traditional rule of law program. If want to work on legal reform you work with bar associations, or judges associations or ministries of justice, whereas for youth access to justice, they may be part of the impediments. So instead of those, what sort of local partners do you look for or work with that may be able to reach out and bring youth into the process?

CS: We work with schools, and in Ethiopia for example, there are youth associations everywhere. In each small community there are organizations that are accountable to the government. That is another way of getting access to the youth. But for us, the schools were a great resource that we could have with regard to their questions on access to justice. If working with universities, they allow us to go ahead and have those conversations. We didn’t have to go to higher level ministries but it wasn’t that important for us. We worked as a small association and that was enough for us.

VK: In my experience, we partnered a lot with public health clinics. Everybody would frequent the public health clinics for various reasons and that was an opportunity to give out free t-shirts, on basic rights like domestic violence, and the importance of marriage registration, and the importance of property registration.

SM: A lot of people we end up working with are service providers. For example, in Bolivia, we worked with a group that was working on access to justice issues. They organized youth and a number of other people to collect data about the system. Through the life of their program, they shortened the cost of land title by 40% and the time to title by 80. We’re about to do a similar project with Landesa in India and their first level of response is a huge network of relatively young teenagers who go out and do surveys and communicate with people in their community and it’s good for their status in the community and the efficiency gains that they add to the system is very difficult to ignore.

How do you empower youth while also working within the local and formal legal system?  

VK: You always have to give an incentive. If you want people to change, you show the benefits of doing something a certain way. So if customary law says you can get married in a polygamous union, you point out the negativity behind something like that and then you pt out the positivity of being in a monogamous relationship and registering your marriage b/c it has implications on property and things like that. So I think highlighting the positive incentive behind complying w/ mainstream justice.

SM: You try and help people do two things. The first of which is speaking the same systemic language and second is to prioritize what they really care about. Speaking the same language is basically treating data the same way. If conflict gets resolved whether it’s through mediation or adjudication, it’s resolved. If there’s an agreement that comes out of it, it should have the weight of the resolution behind it. In DC, for example, family court is mandated to comply with mediation before they’ll even be able to talk to a judge.

Finding ways to help systems prioritize the needs of the adversarial or formal system or informal systems is also important. Certainly when you get to questions of violence or very severe conflict where there are great losses on both sides, those require really stringent evidentiary practices in formal systems. When you’re arguing over a branch hanging over your property, those are things people can negotiate out. It’s easier and it stops the backlog you get when you over-formalize every complaint. You have to find the right way to intervene before it gets to court.

Who would be in the best position to make the most impact to customary practices/informal justice system?

VK: I don’t know if I can identify one person. But I think what’s important is to try and establish a rapport with whoever your constituents are. If you’re speaking with young people, try to understand how they think, and the experience they’re coming from and just meet them at a certain level and try to institute the change. Just nothing that’s too radical because people are always adverse to that. That may mean when I’m in Zimbabwe, I wear traditional clothes and speak the local language, when I do my outreach. And in a different forum, I may behave differently. Just so it doesn’t seem as though you’re completely adverse to their culture.

When you’re dealing with older people who are more bound by tradition and younger people who are being educated are less bound, do you find a conflict between the older population and the youth about how you resolve the disputes?

VK: Traditionally, most people don’t follow the litigious route. To go to court is a big deal especially for what’s considered a personal issue, like a family issue. It’s considered embarrassing and it’s expensive. So most people do resolve issues locally and there are forums where you can go to the village elders. Definitely those forums can be used but it’s a question of what standards or laws they’re applying. Are they applying harmful aspects of customary practices or the positive aspects of the customary practices with change in a progressive way? It just depends on how they’re resolving the dispute. The forum isn’t so much of a difference.

SM: A lot of it is about allowing the communities to determine what the right systems for themselves are. The cultural relevance point only works within a certain threshold, and I don’t think anyone really knows where that threshold ends. One of the interesting ways to allow it is to set up systems for forum shopping. So if people want to stay within dispute resolution systems that they think will treat them the way that they’re used to, then they’ll do that. And if they’re able to access systems that have a different set of outcomes then they can go that way.

CS: In our case, we’ve been trying to fight the traditional dispute resolution system for years because they really put women in a disadvantageous position especially in the case of family disputes. All the dispute resolution mechanisms are led by men and it’s very difficult for women to go and stand up in these institutions and there’s also the problem where men have the resources and the money. All the men with family issues have more access to justice than the women. It was very hard to change the traditional system, so we tended to encourage women to go to the formal justice system.  There were also the Sharia courts. Ethiopian law, to some extent, recognizes Sharia courts. That’s also a difficult problem for us because it’s a completely different forum that may be difficult for women to bring their claims. For us, we understand that people want to try the traditional dispute resolution mechanisms but it really affects justice, so we mostly push people to go to the formal courts.

What platforms do you have that incorporate the social media for youth in more positive ways? Typically, it seems youth have voiced their frustrations through social media.

SM: There’s a group called in the US, which are mostly comprised of teenagers. It gives them an avenue to express themselves through civic engagement. You see that globally through different platforms through avaaz and I think what happens is that we hear a lot about negative campaigns and the vast majority of people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with are younger people who are setting up mechanisms for institutional changes so the voices aren’t just expressed, they’re heard. And when people feel as though they’re being heard, it changes the conversation entirely.

Are you working more in rural areas or more in the cities? Do the organizations come to you, or do you reach out to them?

CS: Mostly we work in the rural ways because in the cities the problems are less urgent and there are other means of accessing justice. But we still also work in the city and we travel. With regard to networking, it’s us that approach these organizations and after we bring them together, we create a platform to do meetings. Once we tell women’s organizations about us, they seek our services when they need our advice or services. But because we’re fairly new, we went out and established ourselves.

SM: The question highlights the urban-rural divide. Even the urban communities have huge marginalized communities. The gaps in infrastructure are the same between rural and urban settings : plumbing, electricity, roads, telecommunication signals. But mobile, by virtue of being wireless infrastructure, has been more successful at reaching more people in more places. It gives rural areas the ability to communicate their needs back to urban centres, which has always been a challenge. So you don’t have to set up a law practice in a community that’s far from where you live.  Before, that communication never happened. It’s mostly organizations coming to us, because we give the software away.

Is there a positive way to engage young men and boys constructively about sexual violence?

CS: That’s a very critical problem most women’s organizations and movemevents have: not engaging men to these solutions. For us, not addressing is is reinforcing the problem and it creates enmity between men and women, especially with domestic violence. I have a little experience in working with men on issues like domestic violence and polygamy, where men are the key actors. I believe in the importance of this movement. Now there’s a great change in women’s approach in recognizing this problem and involving men in these solutions.

SM: I haven’t seen it in gender based violence, but I’ve seen it in the way that men perceive their own cultural identities. With mobile phones, men tend to own it. Women owning a phone are seen as a threat to the man’s control over his household. There was a really interesting ad campaign, put together in Afghanistan showing a man giving his wife a phone as an act of generosity, as an act of being more of a complete man. There was a 1-2%, not a significant increase in sales.

What is your experience with youth and incarceration?

CS: In prisons, there is a separate prison for women only. But no separate prison, maybe for juvenile offenders, which is a different case. This is an issue because youth face a different problem within prisons. They’re being exposed to abuses within prisons because no one’s seeing them as a different group. Not only are their rights abused, but they also have a psychological trauma when they leave prisons because of things they faced in there. But less has been done in the area.

One comment on “Event Recap: The Role of Youth in Access to Justice

  1. Pingback: Upcoming Event: The Role of Youth in Access to Justice | Reinventing the Rules

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2013 by in Event Recap and tagged , , , , .

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