Programme to increase knowledge of rights in rural areas

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Access to Justice and Promotion of Constitutional Rights Programme, which will kick-off next month, will be used as a key mechanism to improve access to justice for all, particularly the marginalised, writes Proffesor Ndawonde.

The Access to Justice and Promotion of Constitutional Rights Programme has been developed by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development and European Union.

It aims to contribute to the strengthening of democracy by improving access to justice and promoting constitutional rights for the most vulnerable in partnership with civil organizations.

The programme, launched in Pretoria last week, targets women and children, poor rural and urban communities, people living with HIV and AIDS, child-headed households and people affected by human rights violations, persons with disabilities, youth and children in prison and refugees.

Given the low level of literacy in the country and a certain degree of apathy among citizens when it comes to human rights, it was necessary to embark on a program to educate everyone in South African about the Constitution.

Director General in the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development Menzi Simelane, speaking at the launch of the programme, explained it would give the poor a voice as well as create a society that not only knows its rights but knows how to protect them and access them.

He said the programme was part of the department's realisation of its constitutional mandate to increase an awareness of rights in society.

"The department intends to utilise the new programme to influence government's policy and legislation in the field of human rights in South Africa and the Southern African region," he said.

Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Enver Surty said the programme would be implemented under three key focus areas - access to justice, awareness of constitutional rights as well as participatory democracy.

"Access to justice will be enhanced through increasing support to the diverse institutions that provide access to justice to the majority of our people particularly those in rural areas," the minister said.

In its implementation, the Foundation for Human Rights will engage civil society organisations who work closely with targeted communities daily. The organisations will have to make a proposal on the projects they wish to undertake which the foundation will approve and later fund.

Foundation for Human Rights Chairperson, Louise Asmal, said they would work with civil society and the department to ensure that the implementation of the programme targeted its beneficiaries.

She explained that the programme would encourage civil society to better access democratic institutions in the country at a national, provincial and local level.

"This will strengthen policy dialogue between government and civil society on human rights issues and will support social dialogue within civil society to improve social cohesion given the deep fragmentation caused by ongoing racism, poverty and inequality," Ms Asmal said.

She added that the programme would also address the prevalence of racism and xenophobia and protect and promote the rights of refuges, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

The process will further assess the variety and range of existing skills within potential partners as well as track record and experience in the field of expertise

Minister Surty emphasised that the thrust of this programme was its support to advice offices situated in rural areas and which provide assistance to those who cannot afford the costs of legal advice.

"Other key elements of this focus area include the development of a joint national programme with civil society to raise awareness and increase access to the equality courts and to promote the use of restorative justice mechanism for vulnerable and marginalized communities."

The minister affirmed that there was a growing consensus at an international level that educating people about their rights remained an essential building block and contributed to both the reduction of human rights violations and the building of free, just and peaceful societies.

"Poverty, unemployment and inequality have the potential to weaken South Africa's fledging democracy, impacting negatively on the challenge of ensuring that poor people know and understand how to access various human rights services," he said.

Last year, the department allocated R9.7 billion to improve access to and develop a more efficient justice system through the building of new court infrastructure.

The department has focused on creating the necessary infrastructure and human resource capacity in 23 of the 90 Branch Courts to be re-designated as self standing courts.

By designating branch courts as main courts, the communities in the rural areas and townships will enjoy equal access to justice as their counterparts in the towns and suburbs, and will thereby have their dignity and self-worth restored.

The programme is scheduled to begin in April 2009 and will run for an operational period of 36 months, followed by a 12 month closure period.