“I enjoy challenging unjust laws, especially where this makes significant and positive changes in people’s lives.”
Kaajal is a human rights lawyer. She is the Executive director of the South African Litigation Center, a regional non-governmental body that uses public interest litigation in domestic courts to advance the rights of marginalised and vulnerable groups. She has been involved in many precedent-setting human rights cases in South Africa, including one which declared the immigration detention of children unlawful. In 2015, her organisation initiated the much-publicized proceedings to have Sudan’s President Al-Bashir arrested in South Africa for the grave crimes he stands accused of by the International Criminal Court.
Can you tell us about your work?
The Southern Africa Litigation Center is based in Johannesburg, and operates in 11 southern African countries. We focus on women’s access to land and property, sexual and reproductive health rights, the rights of LGBTI persons and the rights of sex workers, among other issues. We focus on strategic litigation and high-level advocacy. We identify an issue that is of interest to us, and take on related cases to challenge unjust practices. By taking on a case, we not only assist our client, but we seek to improve the situation of many others in the same situation. For instance, we are currently working on a case in Zimbabwe of a transgender woman who went into a women’s public bathroom, and was arrested by police for doing so. She was taken to a police station and was strip-searched to verify her gender. So we’ve taken the case on and launched a civil claim that was heard in Zimbabwean courts this past July.
Have social justice and equity always been a focus of yours?
I have been at the litigation center for three years, and prior to that, I worked in the refugee sector, where I did a lot of different types of work, but primarily offered direct legal assistance to refugees, most of whom were refugee women. For many years, I provided assistance to refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda. When you’re working with refugee women, you’re not only assisting them within the asylum system and with the asylum applications, but with the range of gender issues they bring with them, such as rape, torture, and discrimination. It all comes packaged together with their refugee status and the difficulties they have with their asylum applications.
What has been the international community’s role in helping or hindering the work you do in southern Africa?
The international community has played a very significant role in providing us with the funds we need to do our work. If we weren’t able to access funds from philanthropic organizations and other donors, we would not be in the position to do this work. But there are challenges too. Just recently, I read an article by a European government saying they are going to provide more money directed to African countries—which is always positive—but the reasoning behind that made me very angry. They were saying that Africans don’t use birth control, and that they have ‘so many children’, and therefore that their government provides money to African countries [for birth control] to help limit migration from Africa to Europe. It was quite bizarre. I don’t know if they are trying to sell this to their own taxpayers as a justification for their development funding, or whether this was actually what they believe—that providing reproductive health funds to African countries would stop Africans from having babies and will, in the long run, prevent migration into Europe. So, you know, there are all kind of influences that the international community can have on this kind of work. Not all those influences are positive.
What motivates you to do this kind of work?
I’ve chosen to do human rights work, whether that’s with women, or with refugees, or with trans persons. That’s the work that fulfills me the most. It can be very frustrating, some days you can become angry looking at what happens with particular cases, especially when matters are not moving. But if we don’t take it on, who will? There’s a lot of work out there, and we can’t do everything, but if we can do the work that we have expertise in and do it well, then we are making a difference.