Centre uses law to perfect women’s rights

Seeham Samaai is the first director of the Women's Legal Centre.

The new Women’s Legal Centre director is hoping to use her background in law and government to benefit those who seek help from them.

Sea Point resident Seehaam Samaai, originally from Bo-Kaap, is excited by her new challenge at the centre, based on the corner of Adderley and Church streets, which promotes women’s rights and gender equality, and deals with a range of matters, including gender-based violence.

“Gender equality has always been my focal area wherever I have been. Coming to the Women’s Legal Centre is like coming back home, to be able to promote gender equality and make rights real for women on the ground and to ensure particularly black women are given their rights so they can live a dignified life.”

She said the organisation also looks at issues such as discrimination in the work place, health and reproductive rights as well as rights for sex workers.

“Our purpose is to ensure that women are free from all forms of violence so we will take up cases and sex workers are a vulnerable group who are being targeted. Because it is not properly regulated there is a lot of discrimination.”

Ms Samaai said sex workers can be vulnerable to a range of issues including access to justice and access to heath. “At the end of the day they are women and we need to be able to ensure that there is no discrimination.”

She said that the current law made it a crime to have sex for reward and to pay the reward. In other words, both the sex worker and the client are committing crimes. “Ultimately for us it’s to be able to ensure that the fundamental human rights of sex workers are promoted and protected,” she said.

Ms Samaai is hoping to use her experience and networks created as director of legal administrations at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and Director of the UWC Legal Aid Clinic in her new position.

“I believe that as a collective we will be able to do much more and that is the support I want to bring to the centre. I also (want to) use my litigation skills to be able to promote justice through the courts.”

The Women’s Legal Centre has a unit where women can go for advice on a range of matters, including domestic violence, maintenance, labour rights, relationship issues and property rights. “Our key focus is on public interest litigation. We will take on cases where we think there is a broader public interest issue that needs to be addressed in terms of the jurisprudence. We also do a lot of advocacy which is driven by research and we have collaborations with different research institutions. It is important so that the work we do is informed by data that us up to date.”

She said one of the challenges the organisation, and others like it, would be facing, was that of funding. “Funding is a challenge for many civil society organisations because international donors have been reducing funding over the last 10 years. One of the reasons is because they say South Africa is a developing country and they are putting their resources in countries where they think there is a greater need.”

She said these donors also believe the legislative framework and policies, as well as the Constitution, are in place in South Africa.

“But the challenge is that those laws need to be made a reality in practice and they need to be implemented. This requires different strategies such as advocacy, litigation and research. Civil society has been burdened with taking on the plights of the disadvantaged and making rights real. It seems as if the current government is not conducive or open to criticism of policies.”

Ms Samaai said that after the elections in 1994 there was a much closer relationship between government and civil society. “I do believe that all of us have a role to play in our development,” she said.

Ms Samaai added that this is where her background of working in government and understanding their processes could benefit the centre.

She says her priority as director will be to give a more strategic as well as legal supportive role to their networks. She also wants to strengthen the centre’s legal advice unit.

Another main focus of Ms Samaai as director will be that of gender-based violence.

“The rape culture in the country needs to be given centre stage including government and unions. We need to work out a strategy for how leadership must become more responsible in terms of gender-based violence. They’ve got a political duty to promote these issues. We need to take on issues of patriarchy, sexism, misogyny and we need politicians to become much more visible in relation to this fight. We need to acknowledge that South Africa is experiencing a epidemic in terms of gender-based violence and this has not abated in the last 20 years. One of the reasons women don’t report (gender violence) is because there are structural problems and often unsympathetic ears. There is a survivors fear of not being believed and we need to have a mind shift change. It is patriarchy within all our structures that is perpetuating this culture of rape and that sexual violence is normal. Structures need to be a place of empowerment rather than oppression.”

She said that one of the concerns of the centre was that gender-based violence had become normalised and accompanied by a culture of silence.

“I think that although there has been campaigns and are laws there are still challenges when it comes to under reporting. There is difficulty accessing the police, the health department and there is a lack of trust in the criminal justice system.”

She said civil society had to talk about these issues as well as come up with constructive solutions and work with government.