Legal support must ‘leave nobody behind’

Written by Marcia Zali

NGOs call for legal practitioners to improve access to legal services for vulnerable populations, such as those living with HIV and TB, sex workers and disabled people.

Access to legal services for people living with HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and survivors of gender-based violence is a priority for social justice organisations. According to Sandile Buthelezi, chief executive officer of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), this agenda item is part of the 2017 – 2022 National Human Rights Plan (NHRP). 

The plan has eight goals, with some focusing on targeted populations — such as those living with HIV and TB.

“The goal that we’re focusing on is the one that says that we are leaving nobody behind and where we need to reach all key and vulnerable populations with customised targeted interventions,” Buthelezi says. 

The plan seeks to address stigma and discrimination meted against those affected by HIV and TB. It is also aimed at creating equal access to legal services by addressing human rights related barriers to HIV, TB and gender-related services.

He continues, saying that the key populations for HIV are: people living with HIV, sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender persons, people who use or inject drugs and prison inmates.

“We are looking at adolescent girls and young women, mobile and migrant populations including undocumented migrants, people with disabilities, other LGBTQI+ groups, people living in informal settlements, children including orphaned and vulnerable children”, adds Buthelezi.

Implementation struggles

“We’ve got very good laws but the devil is in the implementation. We still have a problem in terms of sensitisation of healthcare workers. We all know of the report that was released by the Commission Gender Equity about coerced or forced sterilisation in healthcare facilities in this province [Gauteng] and Kwa-Zulu Natal,” Buthelezi says. 

Other challenges include limited sensitisation of the police, weak accountability mechanisms and limited awareness on how to access services, poor coordination between existing programmes and a weaker response in terms of people who use drugs.

Pro bono cases are key

Buthelezi also adds that private lawyers’ commitment to continue providing pro bono legal services in terms of assisting people who are victims of abuse should be maintained. 

A non-governmental organisation that provides free legal services to poor communities is ProBono.Org. Mohamed Randera, chairperson of the organisation, says that ProBono.Org has been offering legal advice to disadvantaged South Africans since 2006.

“It enables free legal advice to thousands of impoverished people who are living in South Africa through its network of law firms and members of the bar. The work of ProBono.Org aims to ameliorate the lack of legal resources for the poor but also to help facilitate the transformation of the profession. It makes it more engaging and active in promoting the rights of the poor,” he says.

The organisation has offices in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, where clients are consulted, assessed and referred to legal practitioners.

“As part of services rendered through our offices — we hold training sessions for attorneys on areas of law that affect our clients. We also conduct over 80 community workshops a year to inform people of their rights, provide information on specific areas of the law and how to obtain these legal systems,” says Randera.

ProBono.Org ensures that the NHRP is implemented through its network of community advice officers and by enabling paralegals and community members whose human rights have been violated.

Human rights need more protection

Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffrey says that despite the gains that South Africa has made in the advancement of human rights, more still needs to be done.

“Even though South Africa is recognised globally for its response and position to human rights, there are still important gaps to close with respect to the full implementation of the human rights agenda; particularly the rights of people living with HIV and TB, and certain key and vulnerable populations”, says the Deputy Minister.

He also adds that the government needs to create an environment that promotes access to services.

“Now more than ever before, there are opportunities to re-energise people and scale up our efforts to remove these barriers. Throughout South Africa, stakeholders are putting in place bold strategies on human rights; a well as the interventions necessary to make a difference at a national level,” Jeffery said at a pre-lockdown SANAC organised event.

Sex work decriminalisation engagements

Sex workers have also been identified as a vulnerable population and processes for their decriminalisation are underway.

“We will be starting very soon at engagements on the issue to come quickly to some finality as to what amendments we make; but how do you ensure that decriminalisation does not mean that organised crime can move into the sector and exploit people? It is probably going to be more policing than less. How do you ensure that underage people, particularly girls are not trafficked into sex work?” questioned Jeffery at a press conference.

Legal support and disability

The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) is also calling on legal organisations and independent legal personnel to consider expanding their repertoire of pro bono work to include more cases that involve persons with disabilities.

According to the SAFMH, it often receives requests for legal support from persons with mental disabilities or their families.

“Whilst SAFMH is unable to physically resolve matters that require urgent legal intervention, it makes every effort to link persons by making referrals to appropriate avenues for support that might be available. However, legal personnel and legal organisations skilled in working with persons with mental disabilities are scarce, particularly on a pro bono basis, which is what is normally required by those making enquiries,” the organisation notes.

The organisation also says that human rights violations affect persons with mental disabilities severely, as they form part of the marginalised groups of society. Disabled persons often need to deal with the impact of stigma and discrimination attached to their disabilities.

“A large number of those experiencing human rights violations don’t know how to report it, some don’t know where to report it and others who do report it often find that their cases end up unresolved. SAFMH would like to change this and calls on others to do their part in ensuring that we uphold the values enshrined in our constitution”. — Health-e News

About the author

Marcia Zali