by Melissa Reiter
I recently learned a Zulu proverb: “One does not cross a river without getting wet.” There are some experiences that stay with us even as we come out on the other side, reminding us where we’ve been and forming a lasting connection to a place or a person. This is what happened when my friend David Fitzpatrick went to Tanzania.
In 2004, David visited Tanzania with a program called Global Volunteers, where he taught at a secondary school near Iringa. Like many Canadians who do short-term volunteer projects abroad, David found his time in Tanzania to be interesting, but also frustrating in the sense that he didn’t feel like his work had a lasting positive impact. David kept in touch with one of his Tanzanian students, Hans Evans, and in 2006 David sent Hans to law school at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania in Mwanza. Hans Evans has turned out to be a strong advocate for the rights of women. Hans had always been interested in the situation of women in Tanzania in general, because he grew up in a family without daughters. This meant that while all his friends were off playing sports, Hans had to stay home and do the typical cooking and cleaning chores generally considered to be a daughter’s responsibility. Hans’ mother also happens to be an advocate for women’s rights, including the right to women’s health education.
During his studies at Saint Augustine, Hans began doing research for his thesis with the Mwanza Paralegal Aid Centre (MWAPACE), focusing on the legal inheritance rights of children born outside of marriage. As graduation neared, David tried to push his friend Hans to apply for jobs that paid a salary, but Hans preferred to spend his time at MWAPACE and live on a tiny stipend.
The work Hans is doing with MWAPACE is incredible. MWAPACE is located in a region with one of Tanzania’s highest rates of HIV, leaving a large number of families with one or no parents. Under local custom, relatives of a deceased husband will often seize the family’s home, land and livestock, leaving the surviving women and children destitute. In a region with approximately 2.9 million residents, the clinic struggles to meet a huge demand for legal services. The nearest clinic is a four to five hour bus ride away. Hans and his team are representing these women and helping them regain their property and their lives. Volunteer legal officers from MWAPACE travel from village to village by bicycle, mediating family conflicts, teaching legal rights through lectures, song and dance, and providing pro bono representation in courts to women and children when necessary.
When David’s sister, Sarah Fitzptrick, started law school at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, she began fundraising with her friends to do joint programming with Hans and MWAPACE. They started a student group called UVic Law Students for Human Rights Through Legal Education (HRLE). Because the connection between HRLE and MWAPACE is so direct, without an organization in the middle to take a percentage of the funds for their intermediary services, the group has been able to launch projects and programs at MWAPACE with small-scale fundraising like bake sales.
David returned to Mwanza about a year ago to visit Hans and see how things were going, as did a group of HRLE law students. The group who traveled to Tanzania did so on a volunteer basis and all expenses were paid out of pocket. During this visit, the group started planning a larger fundraising campaign to help MWAPACE continue to provide legal services to the community and expand its offerings. These programs and services include educating the community on their legal rights, providing legal representation in courts and working with the umbrella group Women’s Legal Aid Centres (WLAC), the overarching authority for women’s legal aid in Tanzania, on lobbying and policy reform.
As part its community legal education programming, MWAPACE has been able to offer legal training sessions on women’s right to own property, inheritance rights, the rights of people affected by HIV, and family law. These legal information sessions are designed to teach women how to stand up for their own rights. After one such session, one participant, an HIV-affected widow with four children, felt empowered to bring the case before the local land tribunal as a self-represented litigant. Her husband’s relatives claimed all her family assets including the house she and her family had lived in and she was seeking justice. With the knowledge gained at the legal information session, she went on to win her case.
MWAPACE had been operating out of a building in dire need of repair. David and the HRLE students began an IndieGogo fundraising campaign, hoping to construct a small permanent building to house the organization and to secure enough funding to ensure the clinic would remain operational after construction. “[MWAPACE] has a direct impact on people’s lives with what is relatively very little,” says David. With a small infusion of funds, the centre could have an even bigger impact. “If we can give people the capacity to understand the laws,” says David, “they can fight for their rights.” He tells me that MWAPACE has been operating for about 12 years now, but has struggled to remain open consistently. Even more amazing is that the clinic has been run completely by unpaid volunteers.
The campaign was a resounding success. The group raised $6,500 for the project, far exceeding their $4,000 goal. Construction began in February 2013, and the funds raised were used to repair the existing building structure and to assist with ordinary course costs of operating the centre and keeping it open, as many grants MWAPACE applies for do not allow use of grant funds to cover certain operational costs, overhead costs or salaries for employees. Hans has also begun to host a radio show, “Talking Law,” which has become very popular with listeners. The radio show is a great way to educate the community about the law and their rights.
“During our work on the construction of the new legal aid clinic building, I really came to understand the value of maintaining strong relationships and trust,” says David. “This has proven true for us on many levels; in the way we interact with our partner organization, our reputation with community leaders, our work with clients in need of support, and in building connections with our funding partners. This is a way of thinking that I think I superficially understood before - at least in Canada it’s something we certainly often talk about as valuing. In practice, I believe it’s an approach to life that goes much further on the ground in Tanzania. When you see NGOs failing there, it is often because they have not invested enough of their time in creating strong relationships.”
In late May, MWAPACE received official word that they won their first external funding grant, from Legal Services Facility, an organization funded by the Danish government. The grant is meant to help pioneer low-cost outreach methods, and in addition to hosting their interactive radio program, MWAPACE will also be able to create a legal aid hotline and a mobile legal aid clinic that will travel to rural villages in the surrounding region.
“The leadership framework was already very much in place in Tanzania prior to our arrival,” observes David. “Our approach to our work in Tanzania has always been to build up local individuals to be leaders and take a backseat role,” he explains, “like a silent partner model, stepping in where our expertise and support is needed.”
On the HRLE website, the UVic law students write about the importance of law as a tool for achieving equality. Teaching people about their legal rights and how to use them is universally important — in Tanzania and in Canada, knowledge is power.
Melissa Reiter is a corporate/commercial lawyer at Koskie Minsky LLP in Toronto. Her typical day involves anything from working with start-ups to advising some of Canada’s largest pension funds on a wide range of complex commercial and investment matters. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaReiter.