Advocates for human rights - celebrating International Women's Day

In March 2016, A&O marked International Women’s Day by hosting a lively debate among an all-female panel of human rights advocates. The event was introduced by Annelies van der Pauw, Partner and Co-Head of Corporate Responsibility at Allen & Overy and chaired by Jenny Kleeman, an award-winning UK journalist and presenter of Channel 4’s Unreported World.

The panel was made up of:

  • Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and founder of TrustLaw and Trust Women;
  • Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers in London;
  • Laila Alodaat, human rights lawyer and crisis response programme manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
  • Chrisann Jarrett, founder of the Let us Learn Campaign with Just for Kids Law and a student at the London School of Economics.

The panel covered issues ranging from education as a fundamental right, to the challenge of achieving more senior female figures in law and business. Common throughout the discussion was a focus on how women, at any stage of their life or career, can find their voice and advocate for improvements to human rights.

Education as a fundamental right

Chrisann Jarrett, the youngest member of the panel, has been campaigning for access to education since her teens. Chrisann came to the UK from Jamaica when she was eight years old, but, when applying to go to university, discovered she was effectively barred from higher education because of her immigration status. Despite calling the UK home for ten years, Chrisann’s status meant she would have to pay foreign students’ fees of GBP17,000 a year - nearly double the maximum a UK student would pay and not be eligible for student finance.

As Chrisann told the audience, “young women underestimate their power to promote human rights”. Chrisann went on to found Let us Learn, a youth-led movement that promotes access to higher education for young people who were brought to the UK as children, but who are denied student finance and ‘home fee status’ for university. Let Us Learn develops young leaders to campaign for change and has enabled many young people to access university, including Chrisann who is now a second-year law student at the London School of Economics.

As part of her campaign, Chrisann was involved in giving evidence in a test case brought to the UK Supreme Court which involved another of A&O’s panellists, human rights barrister Helen Mountfield QC. The case of R (on the application of Tigere) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Respondent) [2015] UKSC 57 was brought by a 20-year-old woman who had lived in the UK since she was six and had discretionary leave to remain.  She had received her entire education in the UK, obtained good grades, became head girl and wished to go to university. She could not take up the university places she won as her immigration status meant that she was not eligible for a student loan. 

The Supreme Court found that the blanket policy preventing people such as the appellant from accessing student finance to pursue higher education was discrimination contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.  The Department will soon be launching a public consultation to seek views on what regulatory changes may be required in light of the ruling.  This decision could pave the way for hundreds of other young people settled in the UK to fund higher education. 

Female figures in law

In addition to working as a human rights barrister, Helen is a strong advocate for increasing the proportion of women in the UK judiciary. Helen echoed the comments of A&O partner, Annelies van der Pauw, that the legal profession as a whole must work harder to increase the representation of women at top levels. Indeed, Helen recently challenged Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption’s comments that affirmative action could put off talented male candidates from applying for positions, and that women were not as willing as men to put in the long hours required for top positions in law. In an open letter to The Times newspaper in the UK, Helen argued that: “It is not a lack of effort or hard work that holds women back in the legal profession. Most will work far into the night if that is what it takes to prepare a case properly, even while taking on a disproportionate share of caring and household responsibilities. What are the barriers? Cultural exclusion … Lack of opportunities in a world where senior patrons are overwhelmingly male.” Indeed, as she told the audience on the night, “there are more men called Jonathan on the Supreme Court bench than there are women.”

Diversity makes business sense

Increasing female representation at the highest levels of industry was a point repeated by Monique Villa, voted one of the 100 most influential people in Business Ethics by Ethisphere. Monique, as CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, founded TrustLaw and Trust Women, the annual event brings together global corporations, lawyers, government representatives and pioneers in the field of women’s rights and anti-slavery to find solutions to these issues worldwide.

Monique referenced a McKinsey & Co. study, which estimates that as much as USD12 trillion could be added to global GDP by advancing women’s equality. But, highlighting the UN’s HeForShe campaign, she stressed that discussion and action on this issue must always include men. Launched in 2014 with the support of CEOs from ten global corporations, HeForShe is a solidarity campaign initiated by the UN that encourages men and boys to take action against inequalities faced by women and girls. Because, as Monique pointed out, so much power is held by men that they must be engaged as agents of change if real progress is to be made in achieving gender equality.

But as Laila Alodaat, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, pointed out, that the struggle to protect women’s most basic human rights will not be sustainable without sufficient participation of women on decision making level. Laila highlighted the abuses she has witnessed working in Syria, where systematic torture and abuse are common practices by the Syrian Regime and where the raising violence and collapse of the role of law have caused a significant shrink of women’s rights and spaces. Her work with women in humanitarian crises stressed how hard it is just to have your voice heard as a woman and how crucial solidarity is, particularly in conflict situations. She also highlighted how the abuse of power could turn what should have been democratic institutions into tools of repression, and gave an example how she herself was disbarred by the Syrian Bar Association for her activism while working in the UK and raising awareness of human rights violations.

The importance of pro bono

A common theme throughout the panel debate was, of course, the importance of the legal sector in protecting human rights – both in using the law to correct human rights violations, as in the Supreme Court case brought by Helen Mountfield QC and Chrisann Jarrett, but also by harnessing the skills of lawyers for pro bono work. TrustLaw, founded by Monique Villa,  the Foundation’s global pro bono programme connects law firms and corporations around the world with high-impact NGOs and social enterprises to create social progress. Since it started in 2010, it has generated an equivalent of USD70 million in pro bono work and its membership now includes over 550 law firms and 2,450 social enterprises and NGOs across 177 countries.

Annelies van der Pauw , A&O’s co-head of corporate responsibility, also talked about the importance of pro bono work in supporting communities and individuals around the world who would otherwise be denied access to legal advice. A&O’s Human Rights Working Group has over 250 lawyers and professional support staff across the firm’s 44 offices. It focuses on providing pro bono support to leading human rights organisations with strategic litigation and organisational advice, as well as long-term programmes providing training and skills development for the judiciary and the Bar in Rwanda and Myanmar – countries in which the rule of law was wiped out by civil war and military dictatorship. Rebuilding the rule of law in these countries is essential to protect people’s most basic human rights - but also to ensure that, as these countries open up to much-needed foreign direct investment, the workers who will drive economic growth are not exploited by outside companies or, indeed, their own governments.

A question of luck

As Annelies van der Pauw pointed out - in relation to A&O’s work with Amref Health Africa promoting sex education among girls in Tanzania - “it’s the simple accident of where you are born that can make you lucky”. So perhaps the strongest sentiment to emerge from the evening – as important as legal support – is the need for women to be encouraged and supported, both by men and other women, to find their voice and speak out in defence of human rights at every stage of life and work. 

Further links:

McKinsey Study -

He for She Campaign at Davos -

A&O and Amref Global Charity Partnership – One Year In:

Read more about A&O's Corporate Responsibility programme here.

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