Time to re-visit and celebrate the Maputo Protocol

By Circle Ambassador & Lawyer’s Circle Chair Melanie Hall kc

Almost thirteen years ago, when The Circle was in its infancy, two groups of lawyers from the recently founded Lawyers’ Circle travelled to Uganda and Tanzania. We were joined by a team from the Raising Her Voice programme at Oxfam, with whom we were then in partnership. Our objective was to secure a deeper understanding of what can fairly be described as a human rights charter for women and girls. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol was adopted by the African Union on 11 July 2003 on the basis that it would only come into force if it was signed by 15 member nations. This was achieved on 25 November 2005, when the Protocol duly entered into force. As of April 2023, 43 out of 54 African countries have ratified the Protocol.  

In the year of The Circle’s fifteenth anniversary, this is a timely moment to re-visit the Protocol, and to remind ourselves of an extraordinarily progressive and far-reaching document which reflects the core values of The Circle.   

On 24 February 2023 President H.E Salva Kiir Mayardit signed the Protocol on behalf of South Sudan. This is real cause for celebration and a further reason to remind ourselves of the rights and protections it seeks to cover. The list is long:   

  • Elimination of discrimination against women 
  • The right to dignity 
  • The rights to life, integrity and security of the person 
  • Elimination of harmful practice (female genital mutilation and other traditional practices that are harmful to women) 
  • Marriage, including separation, divorce and annulment of marriage 
  • Access to justice and equal protection before the law    
  • Right to participate in political and decision-making processes 
  • Right to peace 
  • Right to education and training  
  • Economic and social welfare rights
  • Health and reproductive rights  
  • Right to food security     
  • Right to adequate housing
  • Right to positive cultural context  
  • Right to a healthy and sustainable environment  
  • Right to sustainable development   
  • Widows’ rights  
  • Right to inheritance  
  • Special protection of elderly women, women with disabilities and women in distress
  • Protection of women in armed conflict 

We learned a great deal from The Lawyers’ Circle trips to Uganda and Tanzania. Although there were gaps in the implementation of the Protocol in those jurisdictions, what had been achieved was nothing short of remarkable. We returned to the UK, determined to do what we could to make a difference to the lives of women and girls, however small. Our ambitions did not end with the visits we made. Lucia Tambini made a short film; and on our return, The Lawyers Circle, Freshfields, Equality Now and Raising Her Voice arranged an event to discuss and to learn from the Protocol. It was attended by Annie Lennox and Baroness Hale of Richmond, who was then our only female Supreme Court Justice. Baroness Hale needed little persuasion to agree to give the keynote speech. Quite fortuitously, she was then the President of the International Association of Women Judges, (the IAWJ) which was holding its biennial conference in London.  

The IAWJ is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation which brings together judges from all levels of the judiciary worldwide, creating a powerful network of influential leaders, united by their commitment to equal justice and the rule of law. Through the judicial and community level response, they address issues of gender-based violence, human trafficking, early and forced marriages, corruption, and discrimination in employment, inheritance, education and health services. The organisation was founded in recognition of the fact that discrimination against women and girls persists in societies around the world within discriminatory laws or in the biased application of laws. The mission of the IAWJ is to promote and empower women judges who can help uproot gender bias, end discriminatory laws, advance gender- responsive courts and promote human rights for all.

We saw immediately that the remit of the IAWJ dovetailed very closely with the work we were doing on the Protocol. Joining forces with the IAWJ was a very fine example of what The Circle does best- solidarity in action at a global level. We fund-raised to enable four carefully selected Judges to attend the event from Tanzania and Uganda, one of whom spoke very powerfully about the need for the legal system to protect disempowered women and girls. 

We hosted in the region of 150 judges from all over the world, each of whom, following Baroness Hale’s suggestion, took back what they had learned about the Protocol to their own jurisdictions. She described the Protocol as an impressive document, offering legal protection to women and girls from which our own Government could learn a great deal. She urged the judges to read and refer to the Protocol in their judgments. Discussions between Raising Her Voice and the IAWJ leadership continued after the event, bedding down that relationship, particularly with regard to judicial training.   

I am confident from that event alone, that the Lawyers’ Circles’ advocacy and its success in bringing together influential women from across the globe, whose voices are listened to, helped us to achieve our goal to make even a small difference.  

Recognising that the Protocol could be a powerful tool for change, the work of the Lawyers’ Circle did not however stop there. In March 2014, a group of 40 lawyers, ranging from senior partners of solicitors firms and QCs, to trainees and junior barristers, spent a year in partnership with solicitors, Dechert LLP, Raising Her Voice, SOAWR and FIDA Kenya, conducting further and deeper pro bono research into the Protocol.


The objective was to single out a number of rights and protections for close scrutiny and to compare them with Kenya’s legal framework to gauge the extent to which it complied with the Protocol. The outcome was an impressive and comprehensive report which has been used as a practical reference by those concerned with the law, human rights and development, in their own efforts to promote the rights of women and girls in Kenya.   

Since 2015, The Lawyers’ Circle has been an advocate on behalf of garment workers (who are predominantly women and girls) in their quest to secure a wage which is sufficient to provide a decent standard of life. It is no coincidence that the rights and protections we are seeking to secure reflect at least three Articles in the Protocol: The elimination of discrimination against women; the right to dignity; and access to economic and social welfare rights. It is no coincidence because, as our first report concluded, the right to such a wage is a fundamental human right which has been recognised in international law since 1919. As Baroness Hale and many other judges have recognised worldwide, the Maputo Protocol is an exemplary document. As its twentieth anniversary approaches, it continues to provide a beacon of hope to disempowered women and girls and a valuable template for those whose aim is to help them to realise those hopes. We can all learn from it.