March 8 is International Women’s Day, and Calgary law firm Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer marked the occasion with a luncheon highlighting the work of the Equality Effect. The Equality Effect – or E2 – is an international network of human rights advocates (including community members, artists, musicians, film makers, health care workers, journalists, lawyers, academics, students, judges and Parliamentarians), primarily from Canada, Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, who are working to improve the lives of women and girls using human rights law. Fiona Sampson, E2’s Executive Director, spoke at the luncheon about the 160 Girls Project, a legal initiative aimed at forcing Kenyan authorities to protect girls in Kenya from sexual violence. I am part of the vast volunteer legal team that is working on this project, which includes students from across the country, as well as lawyers and activists from the Equality Effect’s partner countries. Also attending the luncheon were U of C law students Gabrielle Motuz, Amanda Winters, and Meghan Tonner, all of whom have done volunteer research for the Equality Effect (along with many more student volunteers from U of C who could not attend or who have graduated).
In her remarks, Fiona told the stories of some of the 160 girls. The Equality Effect is working with a shelter in Meru, Kenya, that provides services to the girls in order to gather evidence to mount a constitutional challenge against the Kenyan government. The girls’ stories are chilling – they have been sexually violated (or “defiled” under Kenyan law) by their family members, neighbours, teachers, landlords, and sometimes the police. Often, they are raped because of the myth that sex with a virgin is a cure for HIV/AIDS, and this is in spite of years of education in Kenya to debunk that myth. Many of the girls and their families are threatened by the perpetrators after the fact, as are the shelter’s workers when they rescue the girls. When they do go to the police, which is a major undertaking in this rural area of Kenya, the police often fail to pursue the girls’ complaints. Sadly, there are now more than 240 girls, although some have been lost to AIDS as well.
Grounding its claim in Kenya’s 2010 constitution, as well as international and comparative law sources, the Equality Effect is working to obtain a court ruling that the failure of the police to take these cases seriously is a violation of the girls’ rights, including their rights to equality and security of the person.
For more information on the Equality Effect and the 160 Girls Project, see here.