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Helping Africans Gain Access to Justice

"Access to justice doesn’t just mean access to courts, it means access to information and to government services from a government that is responsive to their needs."

It is all well and good to have legal guarantees of human rights, including freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. But without the legal institutions to enforce such rights in the communities where most people live, these rights rarely become reality, said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski.

In many African countries, access to justice is hampered by too few courts and legal professionals, too long a distance between communities and institutions of justice, too little knowledge about the content of the law, and by corruption that breeds distrust of the justice system.

Mali, for instance, has 300 lawyers for a population of 15 million. The majority of them live in Bamako so despite laws providing for free legal aid, if you're a poor person up-country, you don't have much of a chance to get it.

That's why the United States is supporting the African Center for Justice and mobile courts.

The interconnectedness of the world means that even people in remote and impoverished areas have a greater sense of their rights. A case in point is a widow and mother of three young girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After her husband's death, her in-laws threw her and her children out of their home. The mother found her way to a legal aid clinic that was able to point her toward Congolese laws supporting equal treatment of male and female children and with the clinic's help she and her daughters were able to return to their home.

"Access to justice doesn’t just mean access to courts," said Assistant Secretary Malinowski, "it means access to information and to government services from a government that is responsive to their needs." And the most responsive governments are those that are freely elected by citizens and that respect term limits in office.

The United States wants to see systems of governance and justice that focus on citizens and that work for and empower the poorest people in society. This is the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do if you want to build stable, peaceful, prosperous and just societies.