I find myself wondering how much “good” I’m doing here on a daily basis. As I sit at my desk at the Women’s Legal Centre on the seventh floor of a building in downtown Cape Town researching the legal histories and policies of women’s issues, seemingly completely detached from the real socioeconomic disparities playing out seven stories below, I question if my DukeEngage experience is as effective in making change as a more direct-service-oriented program. I chose DukeEngage-Cape Town because it seemed like the perfect opportunity to see the ways in which public policy and law can make social change. But what if my lack of qualifications and experience, paired with the short period of time we’re spending in Cape Town, prevent me from benefiting the community at all?
The Women’s Legal Centre emphasizes its use of strategic litigation in order to make greater social change. In other words, it selects which cases to take on based on the predicted impact it will have on society and how it treats women, and especially vulnerable women. It has made great strides in gaining more rights for vulnerable women and informing women of what rights they have. But in just eight weeks, it is hard to imagine what advancements can be made. It is perhaps just as difficult to fathom what impact my limited understanding of South African law and society can contribute to this centuries-long struggle for equality.
What if my lack of qualifications and experience, paired with the short period of time we’re spending in Cape Town, prevent me from benefiting the community at all?
Our boss told us that in her entire career as an attorney, she has never charged her clients for her services. She has dedicated her life to this struggle, sacrificing higher-paying government jobs in the process. I wonder if she ever questions the efficacy of strategic litigation in doing good for vulnerable women. The goal is systemic change, but what about the women who are left without legal help simply because their case is deemed to lack potential in making greater sociopolitical change? I know that making this kind of change is necessary and important and “good,” but it is slow and frustrating and makes me question whether I could do more of that good through direct service.
Will strategic litigation ever make men treat women as equals? Will the decriminalization of sex work eliminate the stigma placed on sex workers? Will the eyes I feel boring into my clothes and my skin as I walk down Long Street continue to stare? The employee at the gym who tells me to “smile big” after a seven-and-a-half-hour work day, the guy at the karaoke bar who got on stage to touch my waist and my hips, all the casual and blatant misogyny, written into the law or not, that women have endured and must endure all over the world — I wonder if they will ever stop, whether strategic litigation is the answer, and about what good I am doing for this struggle.