How to safeguard vulnerable groups using Human Rights law during a national crisis

Written by Rommy Mom, President of Lawyers Alert, Nigeria

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?

Gender-based violence, especially domestic violence, has escalated during the lockdown, with families stuck at home together and under economic pressure. On our hotline alone we recorded a 52% increase of calls to report cases of violence within this period.

However, because of the lockdown our lawyers are largely unable to reach these survivors to help with complaints. We have also seen that police complaints about domestic violence are hardly attended to at the moment because the police are preoccupied with lockdown enforcement.

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

The marginal gains made by Lawyers Alert and other civil society groups in LGBTI rights in recent years are being eroded.

This is most evident in the area of tolerance and acceptance within communities. For example we are seeing increased calls about evictions and blackmail of sexual minorities. Our data on violation of men who have sex with men (MSM) has increased by 70% since the lockdown. This is alarming because before the lockdown, this diversity was gradually appreciated and tolerance had enhanced. There are loads of challenges to address now and post COVID-19. Our response now is to ‘get where it’s hurting’ and respond to the injustices arising.

How were those challenges tackled – what was achieved?

Our approach has been to build on leverage and links we already have and to frame our efforts in whatever is the most effective way.

First of all, we had to reach those needing legal help and be able to travel to file cases, despite the lockdown. 

We have a good relationship with the Police Service Commission, so instead of dealing with local police we met with top officials at the Commission and successfully argued from a human-rights perspective that legal services should be classified as essential, as they are needed not only by the community but front-line workers too.  

At the time, only one court was open in each state, for ‘urgent’ cases – mainly COVID-19 violations. We then argued that human-rights violations are equally urgent, induced by affidavits, so mobile courts for COVID-19 were set up and this freed up the regular courts for human-rights violations.

Once we had access to the courts, to maximise our clients’ chances of success we framed cases about violations associated with COVID-19 as human-rights issues, and used this perspective to deal with increasing hate crimes against the LGBTI community. For example, when fighting the eviction of a gay man from his flat we cited rights to housing and due process (e.g. notices, etc.), moving away from the issue of sexuality. This helped to focus on the issue of human-rights violation and prevented other issues being used against him.

To help as many people as we could, we collected information on SRHR violations from civil-society organisation (CSO) partners who run hotlines and other institutions, such as local imams and pastors, where survivors might report.

What did advocates learn from this experience?

As stated above, at each stage we thought creatively and chose the most effective way to be successful at upholding the rights of our clients, whether that was the most obvious or not.

Building networks and communication channels with our target groups has proved invaluable.  Without these connections – informal and formal – we would have been unable to support them in lockdown.

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

  • Learn to use what you have to get what you want. Look at what connections and knowledge you have and choose those with the best chance of achieving your goals. We leveraged our existing networks and communication channels, prioritised the most effective and concentrated on them. The best situations are those within the communities.
  • It is important to know your law, especially in your area of work and context, even if you are not a legal organisation. For example, not many people know that the Police Service Commission can authorise NGOs as essential services.
  • Document everything you do, for use in future crises.

Rommy Mom, President of Lawyers Alert, Nigeria

Rommy Mom, President of Lawyers Alert in Nigeria, is a lawyer and international development expert with significant experience managing human rights programmes. He works with civil society organisations nationwide to build capacity, increase civic participation, develop advocacy capabilities, monitor and document human rights violations.  He holds an LLB Hons and a BL in Law, and an MSc in Development Studies, represents civil society on the Presidential Committee on Human rights and has served as Chair of the Nigeria Bar Association.