INTERVIEW-Kenyan lawyer takes on president in battle for rights

by Daniel Wesangula | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 23 May 2017 23:01 GMT

Kenyan lawyer Allan Maleche, head of the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network, in his office. Photo taken May 16, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Daniel Wesangula

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Widows in Kenya are often thrown off land by relatives, who manipulate traditional culture to justify their actions.

By Daniel Wesangula

NAIROBI, May 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Allan Maleche was offered a position at one of Kenya's top law firms on graduation, he did not imagine a future as an activist standing up to government and challenging tradition.

But he could not shake off the human rights bug which he had caught during a holiday job working with an HIV/AIDS charity - so he quit the prestigious firm.

"I saw firsthand how women living with the virus were disinherited and had little to no rights in their communities," said Maleche, who heads the Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), which works to end health-related human rights violations.

"My bosses (at the law firm) told me that I'd be back within the year."

Seven years later, Maleche is proud of his achievements at KELIN, including a December High Court victory against the government after the president ordered officials to collect the names of all school children living with HIV/AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is the main cause of death among 10 to 19-year-olds in Africa and many young people do not know they are infected.

The court ruled against the presidential directive as it would have violated the children's rights to privacy and best interests.

"The ruling saved the lives of many children who would have been exposed to stigma and discrimination," said Maleche, who is also a Harvard Fellow and board member of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

KELIN, founded in 1994, is not scared of coming into conflict with the government.

"Government does not see us as a friendly organisation," he said. "But we are not in the business of seeking favours. We are in the business of seeking what is right."

The charity works to help government, community and religious leaders to change retrogressive cultural practices which harm people's health and social status.

"We have worked with elders from different parts of the country to ensure that they are at the centre of guarding the rights of women who are being disinherited and thrown off their property," Maleche told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

LAND RIGHTS

KELIN has trained some 40 elders in western Kenya to mediate in inheritance disputes and ensure that women, who traditionally cannot own land in Kenya, do not become homeless after their husbands' deaths.

The charity has resolved over 350 cases.

In spite of these gains, Maleche says a lot more needs to be done to advance land rights among women living with HIV/AIDS.

"We need to improve (women's) access to justice," he said.

"Land rights continue to be a big problem for women who do not have title deeds, are not on their land, face the worst forms of violence and cannot access the formal justice system."

Women have been accused of witchcraft and violently attacked by land-hungry relatives, who manipulate traditional culture to justify their actions.

The courts are a key arena for securing rights, Maleche said, referring to a 2016 victory where KELIN forced the government to stop jailing tuberculosis patients who did not take their medication - part of an attempt to control the spread of the infectious disease.

"We managed to get the law amended to force the government to take up the responsibility of ensuring these patients complete their dosages by establishing treatment centres around the country," Maleche said.

He plans to return to court this year to push for further changes to the law which could dramatically improve the lives of some of Kenya's most marginalised women.

"These are cases that we hope will help shape current existing laws and policies which have been problematic," he said.

"One of them is challenging existing inheritance laws that often do not favour women and children."

He is also hoping to win compensation for HIV positive women who went to court in 2014 after being forcibly sterilised.

(Reporting by Daniel Wesangula; Editing by Katy Migiro and Emma Batha.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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