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Canadian human rights group to be recognized by UN

Monday, May 29, 2017 @ 2:42 PM | By Paula Kulig

A group founded by a Canadian human rights lawyer that works to improve the lives of girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa is to be recognized by the United Nations next month.

The equality effect is among seven international organizations being profiled as a “best practice” in a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 9, said Fiona Sampson, who founded the Toronto-based group in 2010.

"We are a very small NGO,” said Sampson during a recent presentation at LexisNexis Canada, noting that it’s doing “groundbreaking work."

Fiona Sampson

Fiona Sampson, founder, the equality effect

In response to alarming statistics in Kenya indicating that a girl or woman is raped in the country every 30 minutes, often by family members, teachers and police, the group initiated the 160 Girls project. After two years of doing research and collecting evidence, the equality effect filed a constitutional claim on Oct. 11, 2012 — the UN International Day of the Girl Child — asking that the state be ordered to enforce existing laws on sexual violence.

Kenya already had “strong” laws on the books, Sampson explained, but the police often failed to investigate complaints, and even harassed and raped victims who asked for help. Her group argued that not only were victims’ rights violated by the police, but that police inaction led to “a climate of impunity” for rape.

She called the case a “touchstone” and said there was “a lot of pressure to get it right."

In the end, the High Court of Kenya took less than eight months to rule in favour of 160 Girls, finding that the failure of police to protect the girls from rape violates domestic, regional and human rights law.

"We were anticipating this taking many, many years and going to international court,” explained Sampson, calling the ruling a “high-water mark” that brought justice for 10 million girls and women in Kenya, not just the 160 involved in the claim.

Police are gradually being educated about investigating rape cases, after police from Vancouver put together a training initiative. The training is not only giving officers the skills and resources to investigate, but is changing their attitudes toward sexual violence, she said, giving them “a new appreciation of girls as human beings,” not property.

Sampson said the group has been contacted by authorities and NGOs from around the world, and is now initiating a project in Malawi, where corroboration in rape cases is an issue. A third-party witness or medical evidence is needed, but it’s “particularly challenging” to get medical evidence since many victims live in rural areas, far from health care facilities.

"The story of the 160 Girls starts in violence and oppression,” she added, but becomes “a story of transformation and empowerment.”

Photo by: Paula Kulig