Woman of the month: Dr Winnie Martins

In November 2016, the French Embassy in South Africa was honoured to interview Dr. Winnie Martins as its “Woman of the Month”.

Dr. Martins is the Director of the Community Centre for Justice and Development in KwaZulu-Natal. This community centre was supported by the Civil Society Development Fund of the French Embassy in South Africa between 2014 and 2016.

The Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD) is a non-profit organisation which provides fundraising, training, research and other support services to fifteen community-based advice offices in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The offices provide access to justice to rural communities, offering legal advice, mediation, counselling and educational services, and negotiating with service providers on behalf of clients. The main issues addressed are domestic violence, entitlements such as pensions and grants, labour rights and child abuse.

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Could you please present yourself and your career in a few sentences?

I am a lawyer, activist and a social entrepreneur. In 1999, I was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship for work in the field of justice and human rights. Ashoka is a global association of and for leading social entrepreneurs.

You have a doctoral degree. After writing your thesis on “Access to Justice: The Role of Community-Based Paralegals in Community Restorative Justice in Rural KwaZulu-Natal”, to what extent did your social justice commitments influence your thesis?

I have worked in the field of justice and human rights for 22 years to ensure that the rights of women and children which are enshrined in the South African Constitution become part of daily practice in the justice system and not simply words on paper. I have promoted community-based restorative justice administered by community-based paralegals (CBPs) for 19 years as an alternative approach to access justice for those whose justice needs are not met by the formal justice system.

Little is known about the work of CBPs, their work has received scant attention within the literature and insufficient research exists on access to justice work carried out by paralegals. My social justice commitments to the paralegal sector influenced my thesis. In addition, my motivation to pursue the doctoral studies was to bring CBPs’ experiences into the open through knowledge production and dissemination of their work in academic literature. Paralegals are doing amazing work in the rural communities.

What are the main impacts of your findings?

The thesis contributed significantly to growing the (sparse) body of literature on informal justice systems administered by CBP’s that do in fact work and yield positive results. The content of the thesis serves to imbue the drive to search for alternative ways of serving the unaddressed legal needs of both rural and urban communities across the African content and beyond.

There is a need for more access to justice in South Africa. In practice, access to justice remains a huge problem. The thesis provides ground-breaking evidence of justice delivery in rural communities- the role of CBPs strikes at the heart of community engagement. This is of human interest, being a human-rights-oriented study. There is hardly anything written on the profile of the basic socio-legal hardships encountered by marginalised people living far away from cities and towns. As the thesis examiners pointed out in their reports, the thesis:

• Addresses precisely how to go about addressing the persistent problems faced by marginalised people
• Addresses impediments to justice not only in South Africa but throughout the African continent
• Gives an account of the limitation of the criminal justice system with respect to rural communities, including a demonstration of how African customary law works in KZN
• Presents insight into the intricate interrelated and nuanced ways in which women conceive themselves as survivors of spousal abuse
• Shows that the secure environment in which the paralegals mediatory role facilitates a face to face encounter between a victim and the offender in a culturally conscious way does away with the need to use and understand strange legal jargon, which is a real hindrance for litigants in a formal court setting
• Contributes to the fields of access to justice, community-based paralegals and community restorative justice
• Shows that multiple justice systems can be complementary
• Contributes new knowledge to the administrative justice literature
• Straddles law and social sciences, plural legal systems and different theoretical bases as a holistic approach to justice delivery.

One thesis examiner said the discussion of universal pragmatics and communicative actions in my thesis “is very cutting edge and it is something that has not been written about very much and the thesis does a good job of gathering the developing strands of this new aspect of restorative justice discourse”.

To what extent have women’s situations improved in KwaZulu-Natal over the last decade, in your view?

The availability of plural legal orders in rural KwaZulu-Natal has provided women with an opportunity to select the institution that is more likely to grant them the kind of justice they desire. The work of CCJD has demonstrated that access to justice is advanced when women (in particular rural women) engage in “forum shopping” to find the justice system that affords them the best treatment and/or the most beneficial outcome. It is not as much about the improvement of the situation for women but an opportunity to choose the best avenue that addresses their needs. What I can share based on my experience is that women are now more drawn to informal systems such as restorative justice than an orthodox rule of law. For example, many women find the criminal justice system less useful for handling cases of domestic violence.

Has it been difficult for you to become a CEO, as a woman, in KwaZulu-Natal?

No, it has not been difficult because I am mentored and guided by a board composed of dedicated and committed professionals. Funding partners and staff have been very supportive. Community-based stakeholders are very supportive. I received so much encouragement from various institutions. Here are some of the accolades that I received for my work at CCJD:

- 2001: Platinum Impumelelo Innovations Award for providing access to justice for women and children in KwaZulu-Natal. The Impumelelo Innovations Awards seek to recognise innovations in government and public-private partnerships that reduce poverty and address key developmental issues of national concern.
- 2002: Special Award from the Convocation of the University of Natal for significant contribution to my field of work at the University of Natal. The award honours alumni who personify the university’s tradition of excellence, thereby bringing distinctintion to themselves and their alma mater through their outstanding achievements.
- 2003: Inaugural award from Centre for Public Service Innovation (CPSI) for contributing to improved delivery of services to South African citizens.

What are the main challenges you have encountered as a female leader?

I have never been prejudiced as a result of my gender.

In your view, what remains the most challenging issues women face?

One of the biggest challenges of the incidence of domestic violence is that so much of it remains hidden. There are many reasons for this silence - including shame, stigma, repercussions of reporting or going public prevents many victims from speaking up and accessing justice. The only way to combat this silence is to bring into the open and for growing discussions to to take place in the wider society.

The pace of economic empowerment of women is too slow, and the unemployment rate amongst women is increasing and poverty affects women more.

How did you reconcile your personal and professional lives, being the mother of three children?

Being a mother of three boys and a foster daughter on the one hand is daunting and challenging. On the other hand, I enjoy my work because it is a field that I have dedicated already more than 20 years of my working life to. It looks like I will carry on until I exit this earth. To me is not as much about reconciling my personal and professional life but the value of sharing the good work that is carried out by CBPs, giving them a voice as ambassadors of their communities. It is also about sharing their experiences and those of the people who seek advice from them. In my opinion, with this kind of work, other things kind of take care of themselves.

If you had to give advice to a young lady who wants to work in the development sector, what would it be?

Passion in this work is primary- wanting to make a difference in other people’s lives is important. Development work is very fulfilling.

The French Embassy in South Africa is supporting your organisation through the project ‘Access to Justice for Women and Children in Kwazulu-Natal’.
The Civil Society Development Fund (CSDF), an initiative of the Embassy of France in South Africa, supports the participation of South African Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in local governance.
The CSDF focuses on developing the CSOs’ capacity to advocate the interests of marginalised communities, to contribute to local public policies and to reinforce the accountability of local governments towards their citizens.

The work done because of support from the Embassy and other partners has been extremely successful. The Community Centre for Justice and Development held a large number of workshops on the Sexual Offences Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the Child Justice Act, the Customary Marriages Act, human trafficking and drugs and workshops on Maintenance Act. Moreover, among other things, it also provided 22 school presentations to 11 000 pupils and resolved 100 cases involving the abuse of women and children.

What does the future hold for the Centre for Justice and Development?

A lot more- CCJD is currently involved in social purpose commercial venture to enhance the economic empowerment of women.

If you had to give us one word that best describes you, what would this be and why?

It is difficult to describe myself but this is what my husband Ben has to say about me:
"I am gentle, soft-spoken and talkative but that I have the tenacity, iron-will, and discipline to pursue an idea."

Click here for more information about the Civil Society Development Fund.

publie le 30/11/2016

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