How to expand legal advocacy during a health crisis

Written by Debashish Mohanta, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), India

This guide was written in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the information will not be so relevant to the current situation, but we think this guide offers useful advice to SRHR advocates.

Please describe the context in which your work has highlighted these learnings:

Courts had shut down in response to the onset of COVID-19, and we also cancelled a number of consultations and meetings that were to be held in the during this period. It soon became clear that human rights were a major concern that had to be dealt with, with people below the poverty line not being able to access food security schemes, women and lactating mothers not being able to access schemes for their reproductive health, and migrant labourers being treated extremely poorly. The number of human rights violations that came to the forefront were very many.

What did you discover about the challenges that advocates face in this situation?

The few courts still operating only accepted “urgent cases”, but all our cases are important, and human rights always essential. 

Initially it was extremely difficult for lawyers to file cases because lockdown kept them home. At the same time, reports increased of human rights violations, e.g. arbitrary detentions, whilst policies, programmes and schemes for the rights of pregnant women, lactating mothers and newborns halted. Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming persons experienced increased domestic violence being restricted to home. Transgender persons were unable to access rations and lost all income since they largely depend on sex work and begging.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

HRLN works with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals across 24 states in India to use the legal system to advance human rights and ensure access to justice for all. 

When the crisis hit we decided to use our skills and extensive reach by continuing our human rights legal work, focusing on cases in the COVID context, and using our network to provide material help to vulnerable groups.

At an international level we endorsed the South Asia Reproductive Justice and Accountability Initiative (SARJAI) statement demanding that governments continue to provide access to essential reproductive health services.

Then within India we adapted our working ways to the lockdown and got to grips with new technologies such as Zoom meetings. Once the courts started online filing, HRLN started filing cases about human rights issues affected by COVID-19, starting with relief to persons in prisons, then regarding migrant laborers and other issues, including providing assistance to transgender persons in the respective states. However, the court would only take up urgent cases which then meant very few cases were taken up and a number of High Courts had completely shut down.

We also saw the urgent immediate needs of the people for direct aid. Using our networks and partnerships, HRLN lawyers and activists organised the procurement and distribution of dry rations and grains, masks and sanitisers and sometimes cooked food for those in urgent need. We focused on supporting marginalised populations including people living with HIV (PLHIV), transgender persons, persons living in slums, migrant labourers and others. 

What did advocates learn from this experience?

Advocates expanded their practice beyond traditional fact finding and filing cases, by looking to activists and local lawyers to verify information and provide assistance.  

Digital technology became a critical part of the process of filing petitions, documenting and voicing the concerns of the marginalised.

Switching from lawyering to distributing rations has been an amazing learning experience, bringing them closer to the poor and vulnerable. An invaluable opportunity to learn the realities on the ground, an advantage when drafting cases for these people.

What are your tips for someone facing the same or similar issues?

  • Look closely at your programmes, approaches and strategies, and how to build capacity locally. Having people on the ground all across the country helped us implement wide coverage.
  • Ensure your frontline warriors in remote areas are well equipped and well informed.
  • Build a network across the regions, especially within marginalised communities, to facilitate reach when one is not able to travel to far-flung places.

HRLN endorses the SARJAI statement on essential reproductive health services during COVID-19:

Debashish Mohanta, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), India

Debashish Mohanta is National Director with Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) based in New Delhi. In a career spanning more than 40 years, his expertise has been in the overall management of program and project administration. In his current role as Director, the key responsibilities are: project management; grant writing and management; donor’s compliances; monitoring and evaluation; report writing. He is specialised in disaster management and governance. He is currently a postgraduate in social science.