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Women’s Justice Initiative: Improving Women’s Access to Justice in Rural Guatemala

Story: Priya Khanna
Feature Photo: Sami Thurber
WJI Photo: Courtesy of WJI

Last week, the UVA Center for Global Health had the honor of having Kate Flatley, former Center for Global Health Scholar, 2008 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, and founder of the Women’s Justice Initiative in Guatemala, as the keynote speaker for the 2013 CGH Scholar Symposium. Kate spoke about her experience launching the Women’s Justice Initiative, and shared valuable lessons she learned while working abroad.

Prior to launching the Women’s Justice Initiative, Kate conducted a year-long project on health and human rights with Guatemalan migrant workers. It was through this work that she became acutely aware of the great need for women’s empowerment; Kate saw that Guatemalan women were not aware of their legal rights, and thus had no way to exercise these rights to protect themselves and be economically independent.

With the Women’s Justice Initiative, Kate launched a threefold program: educating women about their legal rights, training women to become leaders in their community, and providing free legal services to them.

The Women’s Rights Education Program (WREP) is a four-month training program that educates Mayan women on their human rights and women’s legal rights. It supplements this knowledge with the development of communication and decision-making skills to help these women actually assert their rights.

The Community Advocates program identifies strong candidates through the WREP and encourages them to become leaders; these women spread the mission of the Women’s Justice Initiative by applying their knowledge in other communities and teaching WREP classes themselves.

Finally, the Mobile Legal Services Unit directly travels to rural areas and offers free legal services to women who need them.

When asked about the biggest challenges she faced at the early stages of the project, Kate mentioned resistance from the community members. Husbands and fathers refused to allow women to attend the classes; even mothers-in-law were opposed to changing the orthodox role of women in society. To address this, Kate and her team identified strong, non-threatening community members who advocated for the program and encouraged men to be more open towards change. They also encouraged mothers-in-law and men to sit in on the classes themselves. These methods proved to be successful, as resistance lessened over time. 

Kate and her team carefully planned ways to ensure that the program would be sustainable. They have monthly meetings with the graduates of the school to stay in touch and discuss challenges faced in application of the course material. They have also started focusing on enrolling more young women in their classes, to initiate future change.

When asked about lessons learned from her experience, Kate discussed the importance of being flexible and adjusting to specific community needs. The Women’s Justice Initiative learned quickly that their methodology and curriculum had to be culturally contextualized; even their overarching goals had to be redefined as they learned more about the community they were working within.

The Women’s Justice Initiative has been phenomenally successful, with an 80% graduation rate from the program and an exponentially increasing reach of influence. Now, with a well-established record of success, Kate and her team hope to identify longer-term sources of funding for the program.

To learn more about the Women’s Justice Initiative and how to support the program, visit http://womens-justice.org.

Co-sponsors of the talk included the School of Law Human Rights Program, the Center for Global Health, the UVa Women’s Center Program on Women, Girls and Global Justice (WGGJ) and the UVa-Guatemala Initiative.