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LEGAL
EMPOWERMENT
NETWORK

Our Journey in 2019 & 2020

The Legal Empowerment Network, which Namati convenes, is the largest community of grassroots justice defenders in the world.

When we launched the network nearly a decade ago, legal empowerment practitioners often worked in isolation. Few knew that they had peers in different countries, much less how they approached common justice problems. By the end of 2020, nearly 9,200 individuals in 170 countries, representing over 2,400 civil society organizations in every sector, had joined the network. Together, members are generating the deepest, most useful learning in the history of our field, and applying these lessons to advance justice in their communities.

 

 

In 2019, following a period of significant growth, the Legal Empowerment Network took steps to ensure that we remained a member-driven and member-led community. Network members Alternative Law Groups (ALG) and Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y Justicia (ACIJ) stepped up to serve as pilot “anchor members,” spearheading collective action and learning in their respective regions of Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Alongside other active members, ALG and ACIJ co-organized opportunities for peer exchange, including in-person workshops (such as an “Access to Justice Exchange” bringing together 60 members in Nepal), in-depth learning exchanges (for example, a week-long program in Guatemala, wherein organizations from 6 countries learned about legal empowerment as a pathway to improving laws and systems), and several webinars. ACIJ also worked with more than 20 network members to produce Latin America’s first publication gathering case studies and recommendations on the role of legal empowerment in the region.

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Meanwhile, through our flagship Justice For All campaign, network members shaped a set of policy recommendations for increasing the financing and protection of justice defenders. These recommendations influenced key reports by The Elders, the Pathfinders’ Taskforce on Justice, and the OECD, as well as a global declaration on action to justice endorsed by 22 countries, including Rwanda, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom. To keep grassroots perspectives at the forefront of global dialogue, the campaign secured the participation of network members — in particular the winners of the Grassroots Justice Prize — in high-level events and a ministerial dinner at the U.N. High-Level Political Forum and General Assembly.

Task Force on Justice members stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Grassroots Justice Prize Winners during the Justice For All event at the UN High Level Political Forum

Then COVID-19 arrived.

The pandemic created new injustices–prisoners subject to mass infection, returning migrant workers at risk of starvation—and it made many existing ones worse, including housing insecurity, unequal access to basic services, and corporations using the chaos to grab people’s land.

At the same time, restrictions on movement and free expression hampered civil society’s ability to defend fundamental freedoms, leading to the harassment and persecution of grassroots justice defenders globally. Members of the Legal Empowerment Network struggled to rise to these challenges while keeping their people safe.

A young woman covers her mouth while riding a public bus in Dhaka, Bangladesh

In this moment of crisis, our community has shown its resilience and ingenuity. Across the world, grassroots groups pivoted in resourceful ways to address emerging justice needs during the pandemic. In a survey of network members in May 2020, 91% of respondents reported that they continued to conduct legal empowerment work, despite navigating dwindling funds, restrictions to movement, and limited access to technology, transportation, and protective equipment. A chorus arose from our community. Members said, “we can do this, but not alone. We must find ways to come together. We must support each other and learn from each other during these unprecedented times.”

With misinformation about COVID-19 proliferating, we launched an online discussion hub and retained a pandemic expert to address members’ live questions. Network members rapidly organized a series of peer-support calls as the pandemic intensified. Later in the year, they collaboratively designed and led the West Africa Legal Empowerment Summit, the Asia-Pacific Justice for All webinar series, and a course on community lawyering in Latin America. All told, over two thousand people took part in the Network’s virtual convenings in 2020. Members learned from each other’s experiences and strengthened solidarity across borders.

Still more was needed to guarantee the survival of legal empowerment groups and the continued protection of vulnerable communities. Nearly half of respondents in our network survey faced serious funding shortages, with 88% seeking to fill financial shortfalls to adequately serve their communities during the pandemic. Drawing on the demands and insights of network members, Namati rallied multiple donors and partners to establish the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, with the goal of supporting grassroots groups to adapt their work to the changed circumstances. In December, the Fund announced the first 30 inspiring recipients, selected by grassroots justice leaders themselves.

Photos from three of the recipients of the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund: BLAST (left), This Life Cambodia (top right), and Nazdeek (bottom right)

In 2020, we added 7 new members to the Network Advisory Council, a core group of legal empowerment organizations that leads the network’s major initiatives and shapes long-term strategy. The new council members bring fresh perspectives as well as deep expertise — each will serve as an anchor member for their respective regions or themes. New members include Denise Dora, founder of the Brazilian women’s rights group THEMIS, Sara Hossain from the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, and Sukti Dhital from NYU’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights.

During 2020, we laid the groundwork for three major multi-year initiatives which we are launching in 2021:

1. The Global Environmental Justice Corps. Environmental destruction is a growing source of deprivation and injustice for ordinary people, and the top area of focus among our network members. Yet much of the global response to the environmental crisis is technocratic and top-down. Over the next five years, we will support a corps of 50 exceptional organizations from 25 countries to pursue environmental justice through legal empowerment. We will invest deeply in these groups, helping them to sharpen their methods, grapple with difficult organizational challenges, and win against powerful interests. Learning from each other and acting collectively, the corps of organizations and the communities with whom they work will form a powerful force for environmental justice globally: with inspired leadership, tangible results, and the potential to build new global norms for environmental governance. The corps will include Namati’s land and environment-focused programs in the U.S., India, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Myanmar. We conducted extensive consultations in 2020 and will launch in 2021.

2. Shared Learning Agenda on Legal Empowerment. In partnership with IDRC-Canada, we are launching a multi-year collaborative learning effort, through which a cohort of network members will use action research to improve their own work and grow the evidence base for our field as a whole. The learning will focus on what we call the legal empowerment cycle: how movements can build from grassroots casework addressing specific violations (knowing and using law) towards transformative changes in laws and systems (shaping law), despite steep imbalances of power and rising threats to democracy.

3. The Legal Empowerment Fund. Building on years of advocacy by network members, including the network’s Justice For All campaign, the Hewlett and Mott Foundations are spearheading the world’s first multi-million dollar, multi-donor, multi-year fund focused on grassroots legal empowerment organizations, to be managed by the Fund for Global Human Rights.

“That’s what’s powerful about the network”

Tom Weerachat, International Accountability Project

I have been a member of the Legal Empowerment Network for years. The resource library — with so many great, practical tools — is what brought me here. After joining, I found the discussion forum to be very informative and a great opportunity to build knowledge, solidarity, and learning online. So when I saw the 2019 Legal Empowerment Leadership Course announcement, I talked to my team at IAP and applied right away. I was so excited when I learned that I was accepted.

The course was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended. I think each participant not only brought their own individual experience with them but also those of the networks and communities they are a part of.

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I left with so many ideas, inspiration and even more questions — all shaped by every participant that I had a chance to interact with throughout the week. I also left with an action plan, which we developed during the course, meaning that I could immediately set about implementing learning activities when I returned home.

Then the pandemic hit. My team and I were no longer able to travel to assist the communities we work with. It made our work very difficult. But we received many helpful resources and opportunities through the Legal Empowerment Network to navigate this new challenge. We went back to the resource library for materials to support local communities to prepare for the mediation process from a distance, joined the Network’s webinars and a regional peer-support call, and even got a flexible grant through the COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund.

Taking part in the community made me feel that we’re not alone; that we are supported in continuing the fight for justice during these difficult times. I think that’s what’s powerful about the network. 

Learn more Tom and how the Legal Empowerment Network has shaped his work at the International Accountability Project in this Q&A

Tom Weerachat at the 2019 Legal Empowerment Leadership Course 

Our Network Partners

 

The Legal Empowerment Network partnered with the following organizations to co-design and co-organize major learning, advocacy, research, or convening opportunities in 2019 and/or 2020.

 

Alternative Law Groups (ALG)
Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ)
Association for Emancipation, Solidarity and Equality of Women (ESEM)
Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law
BLAST : Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust
Bridges Across Borders South East Asia Community Legal Education Initiative (BABSEACLE)
Central European University
Centro de Estudios para la Equidad y La Gobernanza en los Sistemas de Salud (CEGSS)
Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA)
DLA Piper – New Perimeter
Ecolex
The Elders
Fiscalia Del Medio Ambiente (FIMA)
Fund for Global Human Rights
Grupo de Monitoreo Independiente de El Salvador (GMIES)
International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
International Land Coalition (ILC)
International Renaissance Foundation Ukraine
Open Government Partnership
Open Society Foundations
Open Society Justice Initiative
Pathfinders for Peaceful Just and Inclusive Societies
SDG16 Data Initiative
Soros Foundation Moldova
Themis, Gender, Justice and Human Rights
Transparency, Accountability, & Participation (TAP) Network
The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA Uganda)