Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone

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Lawyering on the Margins

When I opened my email last August and saw an invitation to a meeting called “Lawyering on the Margins” I could not believe my eyes. Is it possible that someone out there has the vision (and the resources!) to host a global meeting of lawyers who work with drug users, sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people? Do I really get to represent Pivot at this meeting in Denmark? Turns out, it was for real and now I am flying back to Canada and reeling from the whole experience. 

On the first evening, I walked into the stylish hotel lounge to have a glass of wine and meet the other lawyers. I have to admit, I was quite nervous to meet so many distinguished and accomplished human rights defenders. But I took a deep breath and began to introduce myself, and the next few hours quickly flew by as I sipped a glass of wine and chatted with lawyers from Kenya, Australia, Uganda, Russia, Ukraine, USA, South Africa, Macedonia, Denmark, Norway, Indonesia, Malawi, India, and Namibia. 

This was the Open Society Foundations’ first “Lawyering on the Margins” meeting, which was made possible by some brilliant people at OSF who thought that it was important to recognize and connect lawyers who are advocating for the rights of marginalized groups and are part of social change movements all over the world. It was a chance to share the successes and challenges in our various corners of the world and begin to strategize, learn from each other and support each other’s work. 

That first evening was followed by three days of fascinating panels, dialogues, and working groups. When we were not in formal meetings, we spent our coffee breaks and meals in deep conversation. It was constant learning and strategizing, which I just loved. But it is a challenge to sum it up in one brief blog post!

So here are just a few of the highlights. 

It was incredible to hear first hand accounts from lawyers involved in a number of prominent human rights cases:

 
An amazing Macedonian lawyer who works with sex workers discussed her tireless efforts to advance sex workers’ rights in her country. I was so moved by her work and the challenges she faces given the current legal and social context in Macedonia. She discussed the wide range of psychosocial supports her organization provides throughout the litigation process to protect the well being of their sex worker clients. This lawyer’s work and commitment to sex workers’ rights was simply astonishing. I am so excited to tell local sex worker rights activists (especially Sheri Kiselbach and SWUAV - the plaintiffs that Pivot is representing in a challenge to Canada's prostitution laws) about the many ways sex workers are standing up for their rights all around the world. So much solidarity in this global movement. Amazing. 
 
Lawyers from Denmark, Australia and Malawi spoke about how they establish and maintain trust with their clients when working with extremely marginalized and traumatized people. How do you establish trust with women who have been continuously failed by the system – abandoned and abused in foster care, in psychiatry, by the courts and police? How do you provide meaningful support to LGBTI movements who are shot at by police when they demonstrate in the streets? It was incredible to hear the level of compassion and commitment these lawyers give to their clients, who face such intense oppression by the state. 
 
We discussed the personal risks and challenges that lawyers face when they are fighting for rights for marginalized communities. I was very moved by the experiences of lawyers from Malawi and Uganda who do incredible work on behalf of sex workers, drug users and LGBTI communities despite physical attacks on themselves and their clients and ongoing threats of violence. It was incredible to witness their courage and hear about the steps they take to advance the rights of their clients despite living in such a hostile environment. 
 
I was very fortunate to be on a panel with three women lawyers from India, South Africa and Ukraine. We spoke about the various advocacy tools that lawyers use when working for social change and the important role of strategic litigation in social justice movements. We described the strategies we have used within our various human rights organizations, with varying levels of success. I spoke about the past ten years at Pivot and how we have experimented with different strategies in our campaigns and what I have learned along the way. I also described the recent Insite and Bedford court decisions and how strategic litigation has led to some very exciting progress in Canada in the areas of drug policy and sex workers’ rights. My co-panellist from India spoke about the Lawyers Collective and their challenge the death penalty for drug trafficking and shared interesting insights into the Collective’s work with the sex workers’ rights movement. The lawyer from the Ukraine discussed the LGBTI movement in her country and how Insight is a new and courageous organization that is at the forefront of the fight. We also heard about some of the recent strategic litigation brought by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and their experiences working within social change movements. 
 
A panel of lawyers from Africa and the Ukraine spoke about successes and challenges they have had working with their local police forces. Two lawyers from Kenya spoke about the incredible steps they have taken to hold the police to account for their treatment of sex workers when policing but also when the police are clients to sex workers, which occurs frequently.
 
In case you don’t know about the Street Lawyers, they are an incredible organization in Denmark. They orgnized a tour of the Valmuen (Poppy) Clinic which runs a prescription heroin program, which was wonderful to see. The Street Lawyers’ tag line is: HARD CORE HARM REDUCER. Need I say more? I just love the Street Lawyers!
 
One of the final panels provided an in depth look at two organizations that work on transgender rights issues, one in San Francisco and the other in Macedonia. It was so interesting to hear about the social context of their work and the scope of their advocacy and litigation. The third panellist was an incredible lawyer from the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia who spoke about the harms caused by the Namibian prostitution laws and the way in which she effectively works with the local sex workers rights movement on test case litigation.
 
So there you have it - a taste of the radical, courageous and groundbreaking work that I was so fortunate to be exposed to. I am heading home with so many feelings and thoughts. I feel a strong sense of connection with lawyers from around the world who are engaged in these same struggles, albeit in very different legal and social contexts. I feel so happy to know that these courageous women and men are in the world, fighting for rights for society’s most marginalized members. I loved hearing how rooted these lawyers are in grassroots social justice movements. 
 
I see how progress is being made but how much incredibly hard work there is still do be done. I come home with a sense that I am a better lawyer and a better person for having had the chance to be part of this community for three days, and I am committed to ensuring that these connections last. It will be amazing to continue this learning while also offering as much support as possible to our allies around the globe. 
 
Note: I have omitted the names of the lawyers who participated in this meeting in recognition of the risks that some participants face in their countries. 
 
And a huge thank you to the Open Society Foundations – and particularly Jonathan Cohen, David Scamell, Tatyana Margolin, Shari Turitz, Tamar Ezer, Anne Gathumbi and Kirsten Ruch for facilitating this incredible event.