Using the Law to End FGM

by Maeve Halpin
Monday, 10 September 2018 09:03 GMT

REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

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“There are 55 million girls at risk of FGM in Africa today and half those girls live in three countries that already have laws and 30% live in the six countries that don't have laws” 28 Too Many

28 Too Many is a UK-based charity that aims to eradicate female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the 28 countries in Africa where it is still practised. In an effort to influence policy makers and advocates on the ground, and empower grassroots organisations to help end FGM, the charity develops country profile reports which outline the practice and history of FGM.

According to Amy Hurn, Research Manager at 28 Too Many, while updating these reports they continuously come across a gap in knowledge regarding the law and FGM: “No one has tried to tackle this many countries looking at the legal position in each, and making laws understandable and easy, because it's a bit of a mystery and we've often had comments made to us [ by local activists]  that 'we don’t know what the laws are in our country.”

Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, Founder/Executive Director of 28 Too Many, contacted TrustLaw to request pro bono assistance to produce legal country reports setting out the legal framework and status of FGM/C in the 28 African countries. She knew that researching FGM laws across such a large and diverse continent would be a challenge: “FGM being a practice that blends across traditional country boundaries, you need all the [legal country] reports done at the same time.”

Through TrustLaw, over 120 lawyers, coordinated by Latham & Watkins, from Shearman & Sterling, Cleary Gottlieb, Reed Smith LLP, Omer Abdelati Law Firm, Sharkawy & Sarhan Law Firm, and Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie worked tirelessly to produce ground-breaking reports that highlight examples of best practice, lessons learnt, and recommendations for the formation of sound legal frameworks that will contribute to the global elimination of FGM/C.

With over 120 lawyers from four global law firms as well as local counsel in all 28 countries, across different time zones and in different languages, Latham and Watkins, the international coordinator for the project, ensured effective collaboration between all the stakeholders.

“We also had to find lawyers in the UK firms that had the relevant language skills. We were dealing mostly with English, French, and Arabic speaking jurisdictions, so we had to match up lawyers with the relevant language skills to work with local counsel and also to be able to review the underlying base materials in order to verify the information,” said J. P. Sweny, Counsel at Latham and Watkins.

In addition to coordinating with local counsel, Latham & Watkins worked closed with activists on the ground. Boin Cheong, Pro Bono Coordinator at Latham & Watkins, noted how the lawyers’ and activists’ knowledge complimented each other: “It was interesting to see how everyone contributed differently, especially the activists who had the practical knowledge that the lawyers didn't know anything about.”

Impact

Despite their recent release, these ground-breaking reports are already having impact in multiple African countries and being used by a range of stakeholders. “The benefit for 28 Too Many of working in collaboration with TrustLaw and with all the lawyers around the world and then with the activists is once we've collected all of this information, we are going to get it into the hands of the people that have asked for it and who need it, and they can go on to put it into practice,” said Amy Hurn.

In Kenya, the country report is helping local and international FGM activists in a court case against Kenyan Dr. Tatu Kamau. In Egypt, it’s been used in conversation with parliamentarians, and in Geneva, 28 Too Many presented their findings to the Human Rights Council.

Dr Chris N Ugwu, Executive Director, Society for the Improvement of Rural People(SIRP) in Nigeria said: “The impact has been profound. It has made our advocacy work in the communities; churches and with government a lot more scientific and easier. The document is a door opener for us in our advocacy programmes to village leaders as well as engagement with State and non-state actors in Nigeria.”

The amount of international lawyers and local counsel on this project encouraged the spread of legal pro bono across many jurisdictions. Christina Edward, Associate at Cleary Gottlieb said: “It was great to be involved in kind of the heart of the project, actually doing the legal research as a lawyer, but then the flipside of that was that I actually got to know people on the project, got to coordinate, got to know lawyers of all different levels at my own firm who were reaching out and working on this project in a collaborative manner.”

 “[Legal pro bono] offers you an opportunity to do something different and give something back, both in the local community and to try and make a small difference in helping people in other jurisdictions as well who are in less privileged situations,” explained J. P. Sweny, Counsel at Latham and Watkins.

Read: The Law and FGM: An Overview of 28 African Countries

28 Too Many and Latham & Watkins, Shearman & Sterling, Cleary Gottlieb, Reed Smith LLP, Omer Abdelati Law Firm, Sharkawy & Sarhan Law Firm, Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie have been nominated for the “Collaboration Award” at the 2018 TrustLaw Awards.