Fiona Sampson, the Equality Effect and the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict: Translating Rhetoric to Action
(*Unless otherwise cited, the information in this article is based on GJC Program Intern Anna Morrill’s interview with Canadian human rights advocate and lawyer Fiona Sampson on June 19, 2014.)
Reflections on the 2014 Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict
The 2014 UK Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was encouraging. It is the first of its kind to focus exclusively on ways governments and advocates can work together to effectively stop the endemic use of sexual violence against women in war. The Global Justice Center hosted two events at the Summit – a panel on creative legal strategies to enforce international mandates on women, peace, and security; and a peace negotiation simulation highlighting the difficulties in including women at the peace table in a meaningful way in transitional situations.
Fiona Sampson, Executive Director of Equality Effect, participated in both GJC events, as a panel expert and civil society member the simulation. In a brief interview with the Global Justice Center, Ms. Sampson discusses her thoughts on the summit, her work with the Equality Effect, the connection to the Global Justice Center, and the future for NGO organizations with missions to end sexual violence.
Ms. Sampson called the global summit an “ambitious and positive” experience. With 1,700 delegates and 129 state delegations participants reported in attendance, the term ambitious is fitting. The integration of civil society groups into a large-scale discussion of strategies to end sexual violence in conflict was momentous and dynamic. Despite the tangible energy and exchange among participants, the summit felt at time a bit too inclusive. “It seemed the organizers could have been more selective in who the participants were and what role they played. The only possible issue was over-inclusion; [the summit] felt a bit unwieldy and it was difficult [at times] to connect.”
Yet the summit did succeed in bringing together new people and paving the way for future collaboration. The public was invited to “fringe” events, including GJC’s peace negotiation simulation. Fellow civil society partners were encouraged to network and interact to begin a necessary dialogue on different interpretations, approaches and experiences on efforts to challenge sexual violence perceptions and stereotypes.
Ms. Sampson’s colleague Mercy Chidi, Program Director at Ripples International African Children’s HIV/AIDS Orphanage in Kenya, described the GJC events to Ms. Sampson as an “entirely positive experience.” Both reveled in the opportunity to discuss the groundbreaking “160 Girls” Project,” in which Equality Effect successfully charged the Kenyan government and police responsible for failing to protect and prevent sexual violence in Kenya. During the Global Justice Center’s “Ending Impunity, Inspiring Hope: Creative Legal Strategies to Combat Rape in War” panel both experts discussed their respective experiences during the project; Ms. Chidi’s expounded on her grassroots role while Ms. Sampson provided context for the legal processes. The Global Justice Center’s organization and structure of the discussion received positive responses and follow-up from the audience. “The Global Justice Center did an excellent job.”
Work with Equality Effect (e2)
“Discover. Create. Change” reads the mission statement on the Equality Effect’s (e2) website. The Equality Effect seeks justice for human rights violations for women and girls who are victims of sexual violence in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi through international and domestic humanitarian law. Like the Global Justice Center, the Canada-based group focuses on ways in which law can be used as a catalyst to explore and eradicate political, social and economic inequalities experienced by women and girls. Collaboration between Canada and Global South partners was borne out of a shared experience of British colonialism and its lasting effects of oppressive and sexist legal structures. In Canada, this legacy is most apparent among indigenous women. In 2005, Ms. Sampson led the creative collaboration among colleagues, including African feminist legal academics and peers from the Osgoode Hall Law School graduate program that resulted in the creation of the Equality Effect. The organization works to ensure women are provided access to “legal resources, supports and remedies” previously prohibited to them due to economic, social, political and gender inequalities. In many of these countries existing infrastructure prevents women from educational, professional and individual opportunities (i.e.: child marriage laws, gender roles restricting women to the home, patriarchal cultural beliefs such as the idea that having sex with a young girl will cure AIDS).
“The 160 Girls” Kenyan Project
The mandate of the Equality Effect in working to “make women and girl’s human rights real” by underscoring the need to “maintain and uphold women and girls’ human rights [that] are guaranteed under domestic and international law [in areas such as Kenya, Ghana and Malawi]” is accomplished through state litigation, grassroots partners and local legal activists. This commitment is exemplified in the monumental 2011 “160 Girls Project,” an undertaking pioneered by four Osgoode Law graduates: Fiona Sampson, Winifred Kamau, Elizabeth Archampong and Seodi White, to achieve justice and to protect all women and girls from rape. The project’s goals were threefold: to recognize girls’ and women’s human rights, to empower girls to be leaders, and to make legal history in Kenya. The case involved 160 girls between the ages of three to seventeen from Eastern Kenya who sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from rape and from “bringing the perpetrators to justice” during the 2007-2008 civil unrest resulting from the election of then-President Mwai Kibaki. Current President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto are currently battling allegations in the International Criminal Court (ICC) of government negligence for their part in the political 2007-2008 fighting that erupted into police attacks, forced male circumcisions, sodomized boys, compulsory pregnancy terminations, violent rapes, and hundreds dead. Witnesses to the crimes were informed in Kibera, a slum outside of the capital city of Nairobi, yet the government failed to act.
“In Kenya, a woman is raped every 30 minutes,” Ms. Sampson resolves. Many cases of rape are committed by an immediate family member and 90% of victims know their assailant. Deliberation over the “160 Girls Project” began in 2010 with a conference in Kenya held by the Equality Effect to discuss legal recourse to raise awareness and compel the enforcement of rape cases. “It was a mammoth undertaking,” recounts Ms. Sampson. In discussing the role of contracting auxiliary staff, Ms. Sampson describes it as “complicated.” Dozens of legal volunteers worked around the world from Kenya-based operations to offices in the U.S. and dissemination of information was challenging. The legal team reviewed existing laws to look at innovative ways in which Kenyan law and existing international precedents could be molded to oblige protections of women and girls in the constitution. What was most important to Ms. Sampson was the legal argument would stand alone. Therefore, the team met frequently to go over each potentially controversial argument with a “fine-tooth comb” to ensure potential dissents would be silenced. The case was significant in its successful incorporation of international law into a state constitution. On May 23rd, 2013 the High Court of Kenya ruled the “police treatment of their defilement claims constituted a violation of domestic, regional and international human rights law.” “I hope for more victories [like “The 160 Girls Project”] in the future,” smiles Ms. Sampson.
Steps towards Social Justice
Ms. Sampson echoes her own experience of frustration with the impunity gap, initially in Canada and throughout the world as motivation to fight for women’s protections against violence and discrimination globally. “As a lawyer I learned there are laws that can be used to access justice and to hold perpetrators accountable…laws easy to enact and hard to enforce.” Her driving dedication became to mandate enforcement. She humbly recognizes her peers, her colleagues, partners, and the girls of the project as her inspiration. “The girls involved in the Equality Effect’s work and programs and their guardians, demonstrate incredible courage and determination and I am continuously blown away by how they [Equality Effect’s partners, lawyers, field staff] do work on a daily basis with incredible stamina and good-nature.”
In the coming weeks after the 2014 UK Global Summit’s adjournment the question of where organizations such as the Equality Effect go from here remains. Ms. Sampson hopes to fuse Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof’s “legal lingo” into the Equality Effect’s trademarked legal expertise and analysis. “I found the Global Justice Center’s approach and discussions to be invaluable and very useful…the Equality Effect is looking to incorporate these ideas into future legal action.” As for the special guests William Hague and Angelina Jolie, their mark was less enduring. “They were motivational but not really substantive.” If one thing is certain, even after the news cameras pack up and the spotlight fades on the summit, humanitarian rights champions such as Ms. Sampson will continue to fight, even if it means a fight in the dark.
For more information on the Equality Effect’s “160 Girls” project, visit http://theequalityeffect.org/160-girls-video/.