Twin sisters Alison and Jane Gordon grew up outside Belfast in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – 30 years of violent conflict between those who supported and opposed British rule, drawn along religious, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. It instilled in the Gordon sisters an innate sense of the importance of justice and the value of human rights, and the damage discrimination and inequality cause.
After years of working separately on women’s rights and policy issues – Jane as a lawyer and human rights expert who designed the first-ever framework for monitoring the human rights compliance of the police in Northern Ireland, Alison as a senior official in Britain’s Foreign Office – they founded Sisters for Change to make legal knowledge and support more accessible to women in South and Southeast Asia, as well as at home in the U.K.
Sisters for Change uses a rights-based education approach to empower women to claim their human rights. The organization trains local women to become unofficial community paralegals who inform and mobilize fellow women about their rights, and help them hold authorities accountable under the law.
Alison Gordon spoke with Women & Girls Hub about how community education and support is critical in order to implement women’s rights.
Women & Girls Hub: What inspired you to create Sisters for Change and train women to be community paralegals?
Alison Gordon: Women’s rights [are] just not taken as seriously with policymakers and corporate decision-makers. We wanted to see if we could do something different to create a change in the status quo and make law real at the grassroots for women who are not given access to education or information – yet suffer some of the highest levels of violence and human rights abuses in the world.
Women & Girls Hub: How do Sisters for Change community paralegals work, and what enables them to make an impact?
Alison Gordon: Our trained violence against women community paralegals take legal cases and we track those cases to identify barriers to justice or where the state is failing in its response to women victims of violence. It might be in a failure to report a case of violence, a failure to investigate, a failure to prosecute or a failure to actually punish perpetrators or provide remedies to victims.
A lot of the women we work with are disadvantaged – educationally, economically, socially – so they need to work together, through collective action, to reduce the risk that they individually may face from further violence or a backlash for speaking out. So we believe strongly in the power of collective action and bringing women and organizations together.
We also believe in collaborative advocacy. We work with our partners to bring evidence – of prevalence of violence, barriers to justice and failures in the criminal justice system – to governments, public authorities and monitoring bodies, and engage with them to secure their commitment to ensure more effective implementation of the law and more effective support for victims of violence.
Women & Girls Hub: Tell me about a time your rights-based education and community paralegals produced results.
Alison Gordon: Our paralegals had a case where a supervisor, who was male, was physically and verbally abusing women workers in his section. Despite complaints, the factory management didn’t intervene to stop the abuse. The workers would not accept this. So the women, together with one of our paralegals, got together and went to the human resource department and presented the case collectively.
Because there was a group of women voicing their collective complaint and quoting the law, the human resources department realized that they had to do something: they sanctioned the supervisor.
This only happened because women knew about the law, knew about their rights and knew together they could take positive action to stop the abuse they were facing daily in their workplace.
Women & Girls Hub: How do you select, train and support community paralegals to create change?
Alison Gordon: The majority of our paralegals are women, deliberately. When there are cases of violence, women prefer to talk to women. It’s very hard for a woman to discuss violence and abuse perpetrated by a man with another man. But we do train some men, because it’s useful particularly in rural communities that women paralegals have the support of the whole community, so it’s not just the women on their own; it means a man and woman can go together to a victim’s house or to an incident, and it’s a safer way to work. So we do train both, but our focus is largely on women because they are the ones who will be supporting and representing victims.
In Indonesia, we’ve just finished an 18-month project in Bantul, Java. There we were working with a network of women-headed households and trained another group of violence against women community paralegals, who did a huge amount of awareness-raising about violence against women. In Indonesia, it is still hugely difficult to discuss the subject of violence against women despite what is known about the very high levels of violence being suffered.
We had to engage very carefully, and prepare our paralegals to talk, not only to women’s groups, but also to village leaders, community leaders, religious leaders, public institutions and health officials. Through our partners’ diligent work, we were able to provide a forum where, almost for the first time, women could actually talk about the violence they experienced and seek support. In this way, it is possible to start changing some of the community mindsets around violence and to change social acceptance of violence.
Women & Girls Hub: What are the key messages from Sisters For Change?
Alison Gordon: Violence against women is not inevitable. There are huge numbers of myths and stereotypes about violence, and they need to be debunked: violence is about discrimination and unequal power relationships – it is not the woman’s fault.
There are legal rights and protections to challenge discrimination and stop violence against women and girls. They are not being implemented properly, they are not resourced properly, but the state has legal obligations to prevent violence against women and girls. We need to work together as women to hold the state to account for meeting its obligations.