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I’m walking through the lobby of a smart Johannesburg airport hotel with the South African Deputy Minister of Justice, John Jeffrey. It’s early in the morning but he’s buzzing after giving the opening speech at the Equality & Justice Alliance Commonwealth Africa Legal Reform Dialogue and spending the morning sharing experiences – highs and lows, successes and failures – about how to improve domestic legislation to ensure equal protection of the law for all citizens. His peer group in this exchange? Lawmakers, MPs, government officials and legal specialists from 11 Commonwealth Africa countries, all involved in legal reform efforts; all champions of using law to create positive social change.

He turns at the exit of the hotel and looks me straight in the eye. “This is the kind of roundtable we need more of; creating these spaces for policy and law makers is vital. We need to share more of our experiences. We need to talk about what works and what doesn’t. We can learn a lot from one another.” And with that he is gone – back on the road to Pretoria and urgent Ministry of Justice business.

The mission of the Equality & Justice Alliance (EJA), a consortium of 4 UK NGOs, is to support and work with governments and civil society organisations to reform laws that discriminate against women and girls and LGBT people, across the Commonwealth. Sisters For Change (SFC), one of the four EJA members, is an international women’s rights NGO that works to combat discrimination and violence against women and girls using various models of legal empowerment, legal advocacy and advising on legal reform initiatives. Our goal is to make justice systems across the world better able to protect and respond to women and girls, especially those from marginalised communities who suffer from multiple forms of intersectional discrimination due to poverty, personal status, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or age.

“We did not bring criminal law into alignment with the [equality provisions of the] Constitution…. This was an unfinished agenda [of legal reform in India]… an agenda that finds support from international human rights standards and international treaties ratified by India.” It is Day Two of our discussions and Supreme Court Advocate Vrinda Grover has just presented a case study from another Commonwealth jurisdiction – India – on the long journey to reform laws relating to sexual violence against women in the Indian Penal Code, following the gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. Vrinda explains that the reform happened almost despite the politicians: “Parliamentary leaders had to pass them [amendments to the Penal Code] due to the strong public demand… in some respects, many legislators did not believe in the proposed amendments, but they had to support them anyway.” Her message is clear. Legal reforms for women are hard. And messy. And it takes commitment – but also the right timing.

“We need to share more of our experiences. We need to talk about what works and what doesn’t. We can learn a lot from one another.”

A thoughtful MP who passionately believes in legislative reform takes up Vrinda’s theme and moves us on: “We [the Government] are very good at signing and ratifying every law and treaty that comes our way… but when it comes to implementation?...” She pauses. Various voices chime in behind her. They acknowledge that a key aspect to enable legal reform is political will, but just as important is political follow through. When a law is passed, that is one thing. But without the resources, training and institutional rollout to implement, it is unfinished business.

Beyond implementation through the criminal justice system, of course, is the challenge of raising public awareness about new laws or reform. How to engage the public? And how to get their support? A dynamic colleague from the Namibian Ministry of Justice, whom SFC is now working with under the EJA technical assistance programme, takes the floor. A country as geographically massive and diverse as Namibia knows something about the challenge of communicating and engaging with the public in the law-making process. It is not easy, but the Government is so aware of how important public participation is that they have introduced new legislation to ensure it happens as part of the development of any new bill. Why? Because without public contribution to law-making there can be no public ownership of the law.

A lull fills the room as the people in it – the officials and legal experts who will together champion, reform, create and draft new or better laws to enhance equality across Africa over the coming decades – think about the job ahead. Sisters For Change Legal Director and Dialogue Chair, Jane Gordon, speaks up. “Well, I think the challenges are clear. Now tell us, how can we at the EJA best support the next steps you want to take?”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Equality & Justice Alliance Consortium or its partners.