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How Kenyan women are fighting for themselves in court

Winner of the Council of Europe’s 2018 Democracy Innovation Award talks about training women to represent themselves in Kenyan courts.

“Access to justice in Kenya is still a very challenging thing for women and their children”, said Teresa Omondi Adeitan, from the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in Kenya, who knows more about this topic than most.

This challenge, she said on the sidelines of the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy (WFD), remains “because the government has yet to put in resources to ensure that everybody can be able to access justice in Kenya”.

Adeitan was one of 200 speakers from 80 countries at the WFD in Strasbourg, France earlier this week. The theme of the 2018 forum, attended by up to 2,000 people, was “Gender equality: whose battle?”

The Kenyan lawyer shared the experiences and approach of her organisation during a session on how women can use the law to fight gender-based violence. On Wednesday, she was announced as the winner of the Council of Europe's 2018 Democracy Innovation Award.

Adeitan, who has worked at FIDA Kenya for seven years, told us about its work providing free legal aid services for women and children, so that they can access courts and justice systems and "get their rights".

“Self-representation of women in court is a key technique because we found out that the numbers of women who want to get justice in court are many more than the number of advocates we have”, she explained.

"The numbers of women who want to get justice in court are many more than the number of advocates we have”

“As long as you can read, at least your literacy level is of average... then we can train you to be an advocate for yourself”, she said, describing how the organisation identifies and supports women to represent themselves in court.

This includes anticipating questions and tactics from the other side, Adeitan explained. “Like you know if you're in court and someone says 'you liar', the first thing you want to do is maybe cry and think 'how dare you call me [that]'”.

“That is a possible technique that will be used against you”, she said, with her advice to “be firm, be focused on what you want for yourself and your children”.

“We also teach them how to explain [their stories] to the judge without making assumption that the judge understands what they are going through,” she continued, for example in child maintenance and domestic violence cases.

“You have to take time and explain to the judge and produce your evidence step-by-step”, she said, describing other practical tips including dressing comfortably for the court and bringing something to eat.

So far, Adeitan said, this approach has been “quite successful".

"We have this joke in the organisation that they’re better lawyers than ourselves. Because they know what they experience, they know how to explain their issues, because it happened to them”.

“Especially in [child] custody and maintenance cases and domestic violence”, she said, women representing themselves seem to have higher success rates than those who have lawyers speaking for them.

FIDA Kenya has supported women to represent themselves in court for 15 years, providing training on key concepts and the steps in the legal process.

The Council of Europe’s Democracy Innovation Award is given each year to an initiative presented at the WFD, voted upon by forum participants.

Other nominees this year were Strajk kobiet (Polish Women’s Strike), and Musawah – a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family.

* 50.50 reported on the World Forum for Democracy events in Strasbourg as part of openDemocracy’s partnership with the 2018 World Forum for Democracy.

About the authors

Claire Provost is editor of openDemocracy 50.50 covering gender, sexuality and social justice. Previously she worked at The Guardian and was a fellow at the Centre for Investigative Journalism at the University of London, Goldsmiths. Find her on Twitter: @claireprovost.

Adam Bychawski is an editorial assistant at openDemocracy. He tweets at @adambychawski.


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