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IDLO’s interview with Benvinda Levi: Women and Girls on the Frontlines of Changing Mentalities

26 Mar 2013

Chaotic decolonization scenario, Marxist one-party state, war-ravaged nation, democracy, star economic reformer: in the last four decades, Mozambique has collected about as many labels as any developing country could. And in the past fifteen years, its geopolitical compass needle has swung from despairing to promising. 

Even so, political stability remains precarious, and the country is still one of Africa’s poorest. Mining and gas exploration may herald prosperity, but could also disrupt fragile equilibriums in what is a heavily agrarian society. The quality of governance, the ability to spread future wealth, to uphold rights in a traditional setting and to balance growth with environmental protection are all likely to be tested in coming years. For this reason, the nation’s course will be watched intensely by the aid and development community.

IDLO has supported member-party Mozambique through a number of projects, from legal training to land-use and forest-management assistance. There as everywhere else, IDLO believes in the rule of law as the key to sustainable development. When Mozambican justice minister Benvinda Levi visited IDLO headquarters last week, news editor Andre Vornic asked her about the main obstacles to creating a culture of justice in her country. 

BENVINDA LEVI: The main challenge is a lack of awareness of the law. The wider population does not know it, and so they can neither benefit, nor comply with it. Then there is the implementation of the law, and the less the people know the law, the more difficult it is to implement. The third issue is one of capacity: we need more and more jurists able to draft laws in terms that make them understandable, and therefore applicable.

IDLO: If awareness of the law if weak, how are you trying to promote it?

BL: One of the main areas of intervention for the Ministry of Justice is indeed capacity building and spreading awareness. This we try to do, for example, through the Institute of Legal Assistance and Sponsorship (IPAJ), which gives legal assistance to those who cannot afford a lawyer. We hold many talks where the outline of laws that are most relevant to people is explained. Also, through the Judicial and Juridical Training Center (CFJJ), we try to boost the capacity not only of magistrates, but also other sectors of the judiciary, and we go through community leadership structures to enable communities to use the law. One program in particular is related to natural resources management, which builds the capacity not only of community leaders and authorities, but of community members themselves, to disseminate natural resources legislation – in particular about the most important resource, which is land. 

And through various units and departments, we try to talk about human rights and the rights of citizens, we print booklets, we do the best we can within the objective constraints that we have. 

IDLO: The post you hold suggests senior positions area accessible to women in your country. But does he law work for the majority of Mozambican women?

BL: Mozambique is indeed a fairly positive example when it comes to promoting women’s rights. Emancipation has had a big role since independence – and even before that. Our government has around thirty percent women, but we believe this figure might rise. In parliament, women are more than thirty percent. In directorates and top positions, we are beginning to see a considerable share of women. But yes, there is a big difference between women in power and the majority of women. In society, we see that customary law and norms still predominate. Many women still do not know what their rights are, and it is very difficult to overcome the barrier of custom and tradition. One of the moments when this came to the fore was the debate around the Family Law. It was said at various points that this law was at odds with OUR culture. Why should the law say that man and woman were equal, since man was superior to woman? We encountered yet more difficulty when it came to the Domestic Violence Law. On all the laws which aimed to promote women’s rights and female citizenship, the ‘culture’ argument was made to try to thwart them. So we must work to ensure that today’s girls, the women of tomorrow, are on the frontlines of changing mentalities in our country.

IDLO: So how do you ensure progressive laws are respected? Do you try to impose them, or is there some space for working with the customary framework?

BL: I do not think laws should be imposed as such. They must be absorbed. This absorption passes not just through reason, but through the acceptance of the fact that culture is not immovable. And we see that in the villages, what seemed static has actually evolved: the very mobility of women, their level of education, their role in the family… Values sink in little by little. Communities see that women are increasingly taking on important roles, and come to respect this. They see the worth of a woman who is educated, who works and can contribute to the household economy, and who is able to lead a family. Then tradition itself begins to incorporate these facts. It is a long-haul project. We should not delude ourselves – even in First World countries, women have yet to overcome challenges to be truly equal to men. 

IDLO: There is increasing emphasis on women’s access to land, and on the correlation between food security and women’s status in society. What are you doing to improve women’s access the land?

BL: Our culture is tied to land. In it, women do not own land. They cultivate it – first, the land that belongs to the woman’s father, and later the land that belongs to her husband’s family. The main difficulty arises when the woman does not marry, or when she is widowed, which causes her to lose the right to work the land. With our new Land Law, we’re trying hard to ensure that women have effective access to land, and one of the ways is by issuing them with land-use and benefit titles, so that they cannot be evicted and thus lose the chance to earn a living for themselves and their children. We have two programs, one focused on natural resources, joining up all authorities on the ground, from magistrates to police to land management authorities, to raise awareness and guarantee compliance. The second, complementary program is focused on gender and land, in which we try to explain that it is essential for the wellbeing of a family’s descendants that the land be in the woman’s hands. And this is an extremely powerful argument.

IDLO: Women trafficking is a serious problem in your part of the world – and in your country too. What are you doing to combat it?

BL: Mozambique is a pioneering country when it comes to combatting trafficking. Nearly three years ago, we were the first country in southern Africa to pass laws against it. Our ‘Child Package’ contains a law to promote the rights of children, a statute on the protection of minors, and a law dealing specifically with the trafficking of women and children. We continue to face trafficking situations, and we will continue for years, because it is an issue that affects the entire world. But at least we have this law that lays down measures to prevent trafficking, that lays down punishment for trafficking, and above all, lays down measures needed to support victims of trafficking once they have been rescued. Because we can catch the traffickers; but we do not always pay enough attention to the women who have been trafficked, who carry that trauma within them for the rest of their lives, and who may pass this unhealed trauma on to future generations. The great challenge is to create the political, administrative and legal structures that will allow us to apply the law in its fullness. Compliance has further to go.

IDLO: You speak of your country as a pioneer. Are there lessons you could share with the rest of Africa when it comes to women’s rights?

BL: I believe so, yes. The first is that the emancipation of women is a process in which we must all take part, and politics has a duty to drive it. In our country, this is something that came from the liberation struggle. When it was accepted that women were part of this struggle, and independence could not be built without them, the first and most important step was taken. To consolidate this step – and this is the second lesson – it became clear that specific goals were necessary, and our country had to sign up to, and respect, those international conventions and regional instruments which defined these goals. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) stipulated as a minimum goal a thirty percent political representation of women. Mozambique is one of the countries that have reached this goal, and we are now striving for gender parity. No less important, finally, is the education of women and girls. Without it, it is very hard for women to defend their rights and those of their children, and contribute to national development.

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