#WomenOfUP: Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Posted on August 13, 2022

This August, we are profiling exceptional women leaders at UP who are championing initiatives aimed at empowering and protecting the wellbeing of women. One such exceptional role model is Matilda Lasseko-Phooko, a Programme Manager at the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) at the University of Pretoria.

The CHR is an internationally recognised university-based institution combining academic excellence and effective activism to advance human rights, particularly in Africa. Based in South Africa, the Centre also works to advance human rights in South Africa. It aims to contribute to advancing human rights through education, research and advocacy. With an established network of diverse alumni spread across the world, the CHR has had a pivotal role in these three key areas on the continent. Lasseko-Phooko’s legal career has involved litigation, NGO work, commercial law and constitutional research, all which have led her to the CHR where she continues to advocate for women’s rights on the continent and a transformative application of the law.

Lasseko-Phooko completed her LLB and LLM (Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa) at the University of Pretoria. As an undergraduate student she served as a Judge on the Student Court. Her journey as a lawyer started with a focus on human rights issues. While completing her LLB, she worked as a research assistant at UP's Centre for Human Rights. While completing her LLM, she interned at the Africa Office of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Accra, Ghana. In South Africa, she worked as a law researcher in the Constitutional Court chambers of Justice Yacoob and served as a fellow for the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and Open Society Justice Initiative. She also spent two years in the commercial sphere at Bowman Gilfillan, contributing academic and pan-African insight in the Corporate, Environmental and Construction Departments as a Candidate Attorney and in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department as an Associate for three years.

Lasseko-Phooko says that her secret weapon when it comes to advocacy for women’s rights lies in a woman’s story. She points out that while on paper it may appear that women have sufficient (and efficient) laws to promote and protect their rights, however, upon hearing the facts of a case one begins to see the disappointing effects of blanket application and maladministration of the law, and how it can perpetuate oppression. Her approach is to ask: “What is the person's story? Why are we here and what is the issue before us?” She expands: “It can't be mathematical because it's about real life and it's about people's experience of the violations. In litigation, listen to the complainant’s  story because that's where you'll find the answer.”

In her women’s rights advocacy work, Lasseko-Phooko uses the insight and experience she has gathered over the years to influence policy making and legislative processes on the African continent. The mandate for the Women’s Rights Unit, which she leads within CHR, is advocacy and dissemination of the Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. It is an elaboration on gender equality rights captured in the African Charter which is the overall African human rights treaty document that has been universally ratified by all African countries. The African Charter only had two general provisions on women’s equality and gender discrimination, however, it failed to deal with specific issues that women in Africa are struggling with – issues which arise from power relations in society based on gender. For instance, refusing inheritance to female children, or the unfair distribution of matrimonial property on divorce. “If you're trying to make an argument in court, you are making an argument with just that one clause in the African Charter and extending it using jurisprudence from European and the Inter-American human rights systems to make that case,” she explains. Therefore, it became imperative to create a document that binds African Union Member States, recognising various facets of discrimination that women experience and classifying them as human rights violations. Lasseko-Phooko’s unit has the mandate to push for the ratification and implementation of the Protocol by more Member States and support the African Commission in holding them accountable for the commitments made to advance the rights of women.

We commend Lasseko-Phooko for the work she continues to do to drive the women’s rights agenda forward. The CHR makes advocacy accessible to all. To get involved or to find out more about their short courses visit: https://www.chra.up.ac.za/abou

- Author Puno Selesho
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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