Closing the justice gap with research on legal empowerment
More than half of the world’s population is excluded from opportunities the rule of law provides, and 1.5 billion people cannot access support to resolve justice problems. IDRC supports research on legal empowerment strategies to address this growing justice gap and to promote vibrant civic spaces.
These strategies generally shift away from traditional models that involve lawyers, judges and courts to focus instead on community paralegals who help people understand and claim their rights. Many community-based justice strategies originated during earlier struggles to establish and strengthen democracy, for instance in South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and the Philippines. IDRC-supported research assesses how such strategies can promote the respect for rights that is central to flourishing civic space and accountable governance despite challenges such as weakening political institutions and inequitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past two years, IDRC has invested CAD8.3 million in 12 research teams that are leading a people-centred examination of community-based justice approaches in 17 countries, to strengthen democracy and protect human rights. Four of these teams will also serve as regional hubs (in West Africa, East and southern Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America) to link the research findings to broader learning and collective action in the legal empowerment community of practice.
This research will contribute knowledge and evidence to a larger learning agenda on legal empowerment that is supported by IDRC partners Namati and the Legal Empowerment Network. The learning agenda focuses the efforts of hundreds of organizations on a set of common questions and comparative learning to address collective knowledge gaps. They seek to learn how grassroots legal empowerment strategies such as transforming institutions, achieving progressive policy reforms and addressing the structural causes of inequality and exclusion can change systems.
Read about the projects in the Closing the Justice Gap initiative:
The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation is assessing its structural legal aid approach, which combines advocacy for legal reform, strategic impact litigation, community legal empowerment, public awareness campaigns and community mobilization. Researchers are documenting the experiences of community members in justice challenges related to labour, education, the environment, land rights, and legal-aid regulation. Together they will understand what changes or new strategies are needed to respond effectively to growing threats to democratic governance and public accountability in Indonesia.
This project is led by Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation).
Legal advice, human rights education, and community mobilizing by paralegals have helped to build the leadership of refugees and asylum seekers, especially women and other minorities, leading to legal and policy reform in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Working with paralegals, the research is testing and comparing strategies to identify and support the legal needs of refugees and asylum seekers in the region and contribute to changes that improve public accountability and the rights of the forcibly displaced.
This project is led by Asylum Access in collaboration with Asylum Access Thailand and Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and the Refugee Advice and Information Centre Indonesia.
Alternative Law Groups, a coalition of over 20 legal empowerment organizations in the Philippines, has pursued a developmental law approach to empower poor and marginalized populations and bring about justice reforms. This project studies the impact of this approach and comparative experiences in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to learn what works and to shape future programming in the region. The research examines the use of paralegals, strategic litigation and support in policy reform processes to empower poor and marginalized communities to claim their rights and strengthen their participation and collective action, with an emphasis on environmental and gender justice. This project will also act as the regional hub in Southeast Asia for the legal empowerment learning agenda.
This project is led by Alternative Law Groups, Philippines, in collaboration with Community Resource Centre Foundation, Thailand, Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas, Malaysia and Indonesia Judicial Research Society.
Research in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda is critically evaluating the impact and efficacy of legal aid programs in improving justice for marginalized and vulnerable communities. The project examines existing strategies to promote legal empowerment for poor and vulnerable communities, including the impact of legal aid, recognition and formalization of paralegals and the use of technology in access to justice. It will demonstrate how legal empowerment experiences have contributed to overcoming exclusion, inequality, and injustice in the East Africa region. This project will also act as the regional hub in East Africa for the legal empowerment learning agenda.
The project is led by the Kituo Cha Sheria Legal Advice Centre, Kenya, in collaboration with the Legal Aid Forum, Rwanda, Paralegal Alliance Network, Zambia and the African Centre of Excellence for Access to Justice, Malawi.
Police in Malawi have often used arbitrary arrest for non-criminal activity to target poor and marginalized communities such as street vendors, sex workers, LGBTQI persons, children who live and work on the streets, persons who beg and persons with disabilities. This project examines the experiences of groups of people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds as they confront arbitrary arrests and seek access to justice. It is also assessing whether legal empowerment approaches can translate grassroots efforts to address police abuse into improvements in broader law, policies, and institutional practice to complement existing regional legal cases in the African human rights system.
This project is led by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, South Africa and the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance, Malawi.
Focusing on the most vulnerable populations among the urban poor in Nairobi, Kenya and Kitwe, Zambia, this research team will address the challenges that limit access to affordable housing and basic services within informal settlements. Building on recent reforms and the success in having the Nairobi informal settlement of Mukuru declared a Special Planning Area, the research brings the participation of the urban poor to the centre of urban planning. Grassroots movements, local authorities, civil society organizations, and universities are co-producing the knowledge necessary to foster inclusive settlement planning.
This project is led by Akiba Mashinani Trust, Kenya, in collaboration with the Muungano wa Wanavijiji Alliance, Kenya, People’s Process on Housing and Poverty in Zambia, Strathmore University Law School, Kenya, University of Nairobi, Kenya and the Technical University of Kenya.
Marginalized people face some of the harshest forms of exclusion and discrimination in Africa, ranging from an inability to access basic services like housing and healthcare, to violence, based on their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and/or sex characteristics. In many countries, these marginalized people are subjected to the over-zealous application of restrictive laws and a growing number of prohibitions, and arbitrary arrests and detention. They face additional obstacles to accessing justice with many lawyers refusing to defend their cases, which reflects broader intolerance in society.
In response to these challenges, over the past ten years Synergía – Initiatives for Human Rights has experimented with a paralegal program in West Africa to assist marginalized individuals to confront human rights violations. This project will examine the experiences of the paralegal support and new efforts to replicate at three levels: the conditions that enable, or constrain, the safe provision of paralegal services in contexts where justice systems drive injustice for marginalized peoples; the impacts of paralegals on the lived experiences of marginalized individuals, like their ability to report abuse and seek justice, or on reducing rights violations and impunity for them; and how to build constructive engagement with policymakers to improve projects for marginalized individuals. The findings are expected to contribute to improving efforts to promote human rights in West Africa, identify recommendations to replicate similar paralegal programs, and open spaces of policy engagement to address gaps, especially in the justice system, that are contributing to rights violations of marginalized individuals. This is part of a global cohort of projects on Closing the justice gap - A Legal Empowerment Research and Learning Agenda.
This action research aims to develop a proven legal empowerment model to improve the participation of rural women in actions to combat the effects of climate change in highly conservative contexts. Working in three locations on the Senegalese coast, the researchers and their partners are designing and testing strategies to address structural challenges, such as social norms contributing to gender inequality, for women working in the fisheries sector to gain access to decision-making processes. Capacity building includes legal empowerment training for women and community leaders. The research will also identify how to scale the model nationally and in other French-speaking African countries.
This project is led by Natural Justice, in collaboration with IRA Think Tank and the African Women’s Development and Communication Network.
Working together in Cameroon and Uganda, the project partners will address conflicts related to land investments using an innovative preventative approach to legal empowerment. Action-based research will identify potential violations of rights before they have occurred, focusing on women and Indigenous communities who are most at risk. The project will employ four important tools: an early warning hotline and rapid response, hotspot mapping, participatory mapping in hotspots to understand the extent of the conflicts and the monitoring of investor compliance with laws and regulations.
This project is led by the Centre pour l'environnement et le développement, Cameroon, the Land and Equity Movement in Uganda and the International Institute for Environment and Development, UK.
Confrontations over land and economic development in West Africa expose the urban poor to forced eviction, criminalization of the informal economy, and discrimination against migrants. In collaboration with grassroots social movements, this project addresses these types of justice challenges in Benin, Nigeria and Senegal. The research team analyzes the extent to which current legal empowerment strategies contribute to systemic change in favour of urban poor communities and enhances their ability to claim their rights. The goal is to inform the agendas and actions of social movements, non-governmental organizations, and donors who support legal empowerment strategies. This project will also act as the regional hub in West Africa for the legal empowerment learning agenda.
This project is led by Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, based in Nigeria and Benin, in collaboration with the Nigerian Slum/Informal Settlement Federation, the Physically Challenged Empowerment Initiative, Nigeria and the Fédération d‘habitants de Bidonvilles/Zones de Taudis au Bénin.
Despite legal and constitutional safeguards to protect the environment in Latin America, historically marginalized communities are the most likely to be affected by environmental damage and climate change. Women bear a disproportionate burden of these impacts and are playing leadership roles in environmental movements. To understand how legal empowerment tools can help to enforce existing laws and rights, the following case studies are using action research in Argentina, Chile and Mexico:
- Enhancing public participation and community solidarity for urban redevelopment in Argentina’s Matanza Riachuelo River Basin
- Collective action for protecting community lands in Chile from exploitation by the salmon industry
- Preventative strategies for protecting Indigenous land from dispossession and environmental degradation in the Yucatán Peninsula
The case studies are carried out by Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ), Argentina, which is also acting as regional hub in Latin America for the legal empowerment learning agenda; Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente (FIMA), Chile and Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales, Mexico (PRODESC).
Namati and the Legal Empowerment Network will act as the global knowledge hub for this initiative. In collaboration with the regional hubs, they will coordinate shared learning efforts across the projects and organize joint activities at key points in the research process.