Oiling the wheels of justice for women

Women are increasingly finding themselves in court, seeking the ever-elusive justice. With the cost of this hiring a lawyer getting higher by the day, a programme that makes women their own lawyers has been rolled out by FIDA. BILLY MUIRURI reports.

Friday November 7 2008

Martha Moraa and Sarah Wangari are two of the

Martha Moraa and Sarah Wangari are two of the many women who have been trained to face the courts, with tips on how they can tilt the wheels of justice to their favour. 

By BILLY MUIRURI

Both are of humble economic ability and when they found themselves facing the law, the prospect of hiring a smart lawyer to push their cases forward was not even an option.
Confused and anxious, Martha Moraa and Sarah Wangari gathered courage and when they came to the bar, they were determined to represent themselves.
Moraa, a mother of four, took her husband to court after he seriously injured her after a series of domestic assaults. “My husband was alcoholic and had a penchant of picking up fights with me unnecessarily,” she says.
On the day she said enough is enough, Moraa had been battered and thrown out of their matrimonial home at night together with the children. She sued him at Makadara law courts in February 2007.
A freelance embroidery specialist, she had no money to hire a lawyer. She sought assistance from the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (Fida-K) and immediately was enrolled for self–representation courses.
“Our increasing client base makes it hard to have a lawyer for each client. That is why we assess them and see who we can train to represent herself,” says Fida’s executive director, Patricia Nyaundi.
Moraa is one of the many women who have been trained to face the courts, with tips on how they can tilt the wheels of justice to their favour.
As her case was going on, Moraa would bring a report to the organisation for “further advice”. “I was taught how to dress on court days, give evidence, avail necessary documents and hold my emotions back to avoid wasting time,” she says as she recollects the lessons she underwent last year.
Apart from the assault case, she also filed a case at the Children’s Court where she sought custody and maintenance of her four children. Though the first case is on-going, the one on the children only gave her custody of their last born. She appealed.
“I am aware of my rights and the court treated me unfairly,” the 30-year-old mother says explaining why she decided to try justice at a higher level. The earlier judgment had awarded her custody of their seven-year-old last born only.
Her husband was to cater for his educational needs but Moraa questions why the child was not accorded other maintenance costs like food and clothes.
The other three children were left out as they were past 18 years by the time the judgment was being made. Her other children are aged 24, 21 and 18 respectively.

In the appeal she has filed at the High Court, she wants the husband compelled to cater for all the material needs of all her children. She also wants to share rent income for a house she claims they built together.
 “I am legally married and therefore my children are entitled to their father’s care, “ she says as she displays her ring which she says emanated from a wedding in 1989.
Today, Moraa is optimistic that she has been enlightened on the basics related to court processes and she does not require a lawyer. “I have had successful days in court and I must say I am aware of the direction the cases are headed,” she told Saturday Magazine in a candid interview.

Like Moraa, Wangari found herself steeped in the murky waters of the law when her husband of seven years dragged her to the Children’s Court three years ago.

When they broke up, her husband who works in the tourism sector, wanted to take custody of their then five-year-old son. He told the court that she was “too poor to take care of the child and that the son was too precious to call another man, father, as he believed she would remarry very soon.”

After several court sessions, her husband deserted the case midway in 2005. She went to Fida and asked if she could be assisted to revive the case as all this time, the child was living with the father.

“He took the boy to his sister’s house. I could not stomach this as I am working and able to provide for my child,” says the 30-year-old beauty therapist in Kitengela township.

This year, Wangari succeeded in filing a case at the Children’s Court where she asked to be granted custody of the boy and for the father to cater for education, food, clothing and other needs.

After several trips to the Fida offices for tips as the case progressed, it was ruled in her favour last September. Though she is basking in the glory of winning the suit, Wangari’s joy is yet to reach its peak.

She said this week,” I am yet to get back my son and I am again working with the organisation to have the ruling implemented.”

As she narrates this, she exudes confidence that she will eventually wrestle her son from the man she claims drove her out of her matrimonial house by always accusing her and “even employing people to spy on me”.

Wangari attributes her court win to the coaching she received from Fida lawyers where she had to prove to the court that she was the aggrieved party and that her rights  had been infringed upon.”

She says of the coaching, “I was warned to be very official and avoid funny behaviour in court, to arrive early and to have confidence when giving evidence.” She was also asked to be composed and consistent as a departure from the truth always leads to inconsistent evidence and could make one lose the case.

Wangari says that on several occasions, she was taken through court jargon and was showed how to relate well with court officials. “From the coaching, I knew who to see and also what kind of questions to ask,” she says.

She says she has seen justice elude many of her friends who are also mothers like her as they make some simple but costly mistakes before the courts. There is a lot of ignorance on the law and the common woman needs refresher sessions especially when they have a case before them.

Both Moraa and Wangari admit their destiny lay in the hope that the lessons they had learnt during Fida’s sessions would come in handy and save them from humiliation in court.

They confide that with such tips, it will no longer be easy for unscrupulous lawyers to take advantage of ignorant women when they seek their legal services.

Ms Nyaundi reveals that the self-representation training programme unveiled last week will soon see hundreds of women equipped with the ability to represent themselves in local courts.

Ms Nyaundi says two publications also launched last week in Nairobi will assist in reaching  more women in the grassroots.

“The Manual for Self-represented Litigants and the Self-Representation manual for Child Custody and Maintenance are easy to read and the more literate clients can actually use them without much assistance, “she says.

The Saturday Magazine team was also taken through audio visual tools that will be used for the training. “We shall use them for a series of workshops in various parts of the country,” said Nyaundi.

Fida chairperson Violet Awori says the organisation has made considerable progress to ensure it reaches as many of clients as possible.

Without a national legal scheme in family law in Kenya, Ms Awori says it has become difficult for poor women to successfully go through court processes.

“The option of self-representation has become central in the quest for justice because the cost of hiring lawyers is prohibitive to many women” she says.

The World Bank has acknowledged the rising levels of poverty as a major hindrance for the poor to access justice. Dr Nightingale Rukuba-Ngaiza, a senior counsel with the bank says legal services are expensive even for those in employment.

“You can imagine the dilemma of a mother seeking justice over her land rights and the challenge of bringing something on the table for her children,” she she says.

Saying the World Bank is keen on the programme, Dr Rukuba- Ngaiza also reveals that a formal appeal will be made to judicial officers to give self-represented clients more time in court.

The self-representation tools come at a time when other avenues to access justice such as the traditional justice system found in various communities is still hugely skewed against women.

“Women lack representation in these communal courts and even when they participate, it is only on matters pertaining to sexuality and reproductive health,” says Awori.

She notes that the many different challenges have caused a proliferation of all manner of cases, and it is time women’s participation in justice was strengthened at the grassroots level.

A research carried out on behalf of Fida in the Coast province, confirmed that though traditional justice is accessible and fast, it was generally biased against women, especially on representation, and lacked tangible powers of enforcement.

The report, Traditional Justice Systems in Kenya: A Study of Communities in Coast Province, also noted that some of the punishments meted out to women were in conflict with the tenets of human rights principles.

We cannot avoid being hauled to courts when we are on the wrong side of the law. Sometimes we are also sued and the only way we can get off the hook is being cleared by a court of law, and it may only need you to know about some provisions of the law for you to secure justice.

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