In any other year, Katrina Hatahet (LAW ’21) would be conducting fieldwork for her International Women’s Human Rights Clinic in Lesotho, but travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have posed challenges to the clinic’s work to advance women’s rights as teams shift to remote interviews.
This spring, the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, a 10-credit course at the Georgetown University Law Center, has two teams with four students each that are working on women’s inheritance laws in Lesotho, which determine what an individual will receive from an estate. Within the country’s dual legal system, many rural women’s issues fall under the domain of customary law rather than the domain of general civil law. Customary law is based in local customs and often restricts female autonomy, denies widows the right to inherit from their husbands and grants inheritance to the eldest male son.
One group, the constitutional project team, is partnering with local women’s organizations in Lesotho to draft a human rights report, aiming to influence the country’s current constitutional rewriting process, according to Hatahet. The second group, the inheritance project team, is researching domestic and international laws, constitutional arguments and comparative country examples to advocate for women’s inheritance rights through new legislation.
It has been more challenging this year to reach individuals who are willing to participate, according to Hatahet, who is working on the IWHRC constitutional team.
“There are also risks involved for those who might not even have access to the technology,” Hatahet said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “Individuals who might not have access to the technology that would be necessary to conduct these interviews would then maybe have to otherwise seek transportation to those NGOs who may have access to the technology.”
Despite obstacles due to this year’s virtual interviews, the IWHRC is pushing the government of Lesotho to comply with its international agreements, according to Grace Edwards (LAW ’22), who is working on the IWHRC inheritance team.
“It’s just a little bit tougher scheduling-wise because we have to make sure that everyone has internet access on both sides and can do an interview over Zoom and WhatsApp, which is always just a bit more awkward and impersonal than doing it in person, because it’s a little bit harder to build that relationship,” Edwards said in a phone interview with The Hoya.
Although students have not traveled to Lesotho, the IWHRC has been able to conduct interviews that are similar in structure and scope to previous years. The teams have spoken with various stakeholders, including government officials, nongovernmental organizations and judges regarding their views under the current laws and their proposed solutions, according to Edwards.
Since its founding in 1998, the IWHRC has worked with advocacy partners in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and central Europe to combat legal discrimination against women. Professor Susan Deller Ross, the founder and current director of the IWHRC, developed the idea alongside several graduate students from African countries, who brought to her attention instances of unjust legislation against women.
The IWHRC was subsequently created to work with advocacy partners abroad, according to Ross.
“They were the ones who told me about the laws in the books from the countries they were from,” Ross said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “Laws that allowed men to practice polygamy by marrying as many women as they wanted. Laws that allowed men to beat their wives up, laws that said only men could inherit. There were just many laws on the books that let men treat women very badly.”
The inheritance laws that the clinic is investigating this year highlight how women living in rural and urban areas experience unequal property rights, according to Ross.
“One of the rules that governs rural women is that the oldest son inherits when a man dies,” Ross said. “His widow doesn’t get anything, the other siblings don’t get anything, the mom is often kicked out by the son. Or maybe it’s the son by a different wife, because he’s polygamous and it’s the oldest son that gets the inheritance.”
The interviews, despite challenges encountered by their virtual formats this year, will be an essential part of developing the clinic’s final human rights report, according to Hatahet.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect with everything, having virtual interviews and operating in a different time zone, and trying to connect to the other part of the world,” Hatahet said. “It’s definitely better than I had expected, and we gathered a lot of great insights so far from all these different interviews. These interviews are very valuable to our human rights report, and they definitely serve to better inform our proposals that we’ll be making.”