Volunteering in Tanzania: Q&A with Jane Fletcher

Survive Law interviewed Jane Fletcher, a qualified barrister and solicitor who worked with the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in Tanzania for a month. You can read more about the programme here. If you have an interest in social justice or international legal systems, we strongly recommend undertaking a voluntary placement abroad.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a public servant working for the government in Wellington, New Zealand. I am a qualified barrister and solicitor and worked in private practice in my early career doing lots of criminal defence and family court work before a stint in England where I worked as solicitor for a couple of the London Borough Councils. In the early 2000s I returned to New Zealand and got a job working for the government negotiating historical Treaty of Waitangi settlements (the settlement of historical claims of Māori against the Crown). I’ve also worked as a Senior Justice advisor/Private Secretary in the office of the Minister of Justice from 2014 to 2017. While I haven’t worked as a lawyer in a long time, my career focuses on justice issues.

What motivated you to join Project Abroad's Law and Human Rights Project in Tanzania?

I love to travel. I decided to take a career break and go travelling in mid-2017. I wanted to do some volunteer work overseas that would utilise my professional skills and enable me to make a valuable contribution. I did quite a bit of online research but despite the range of choices out there, in the end choosing Projects Abroad was easy – it is a reputable organisation and I liked the sound of the project and the flexibility around how long you could commit for. I was also very keen to go to Africa.

What was your role and what responsibilities did it involve?

I was part of a small team (between 2 and 5 people while I was there) providing legal and human rights advice to women’s groups and to boys held in a retention centre. We worked with, and under the supervision, of a local, legally trained Tanzanian woman, and were based at the Projects Abroad office in Arusha, Tanzania.

We met with the women’s groups in churches, homes, sometimes even under a tree in a field. Us volunteers would take turns providing presentations on an issue like inheritance law or the rights of children born out of wedlock and discussing the law and answering questions. We would often also meet with individual women seeking advice on their personal situation.

All statutes are in English (which made research easier than it might have been) but Swahili is the lingua franca so the woman who ran the programme translated for us. For most subjects there would be a customary, Islamic and statutory law answer and which law applied depended on the religion of the person concerned. Some of the laws are very archaic, but problems also seemed to arise in its observance. For example, children born out of wedlock generally (except when it comes to inheritance) have the same rights as other children but that didn’t seem to be widely known.

The second part of the work was meeting with boys (young teens up to 18 years) held in a retention centre waiting court hearing of charges against them. We would advise them on their legal rights and then keep each informed about the progress of their respective case. We would then draft submissions on their behalf which were usually presented to the court by their Social Worker who attended court with them. The government had allocated one Social Worker to look after several retention centres, many of which held approximately 20 to 30 boys.

We’d spend about two thirds of the time out and about visiting people as outlined above and the rest of the time back at the Projects Abroad office researching the law, writing up submissions and presentations. We also had access to a law firm who would provide us with advice on matters we weren’t sure about. We would visit the firm about once a week.

What were some of the barriers clients faced when accessing legal advice?

One barrier is access to information about the law – there aren’t citizens advice or community law centres, most people in the villages at least don’t have access to the internet and the law is in English when most people’s main language is Swahili and/or a tribal language.

Another barrier is access to representation if you don’t have the money to pay for it. There’s no legal aid or court appointed duty solicitors. People often didn’t know what their rights were, let alone how to enforce them.

One big difference, which is more about the law than access to it, is that there is no Domestic or Family Violence legislation in Tanzania. While it is an offence to assault your spouse there are no protection or property orders or any of the other (hard fought) protections we are used to in New Zealand and Australia.

What were the most insightful aspects of your experience in Tanzania?

That you can have the best laws in the world but without equality of access to them that’s meaningless. Tanzania is a member of the Commonwealth and has a common law legal system. Furthermore, some of the law, particularly around the rights of children in the criminal system, was similar to that in New Zealand, but seemed to be routinely ignored by the Police. The kids had often been beaten or otherwise abused by the police or the law not followed at all. I was only there for four weeks but during that time we secured the release of several of the boys on bail and/or had their charges dismissed. Sadly, we were only a few people working in one retention centre - most children don’t have access to the kind of services we were providing so aren’t able to enforce their rights under the law.

Would you recommend this Project to law professionals and students? If so, why? Would you have any tips for them?

Definitely go! Law professionals especially because most of the volunteers on the programme are not legally qualified and so your experience researching, writing and presenting a case is invaluable. But students should also go because your legal education will be extremely helpful. It is very rewarding work. If the volunteers weren’t doing this no-one else would be. The kids in particular don’t have any other source of legal advice. And I really like the fact that we are working with local Tanzanians to deliver projects they lead rather than being outsiders coming in and telling them what to do.

I went for a month which was great and I did feel like I added value but go for longer if you can. I was really just getting into the swing of it and particularly just getting to know the locals well and then it was time to leave.

Projects Abroad billet you with a local family and that was also wonderful for meeting Tanzanians and seeing what everyday life is like. Arusha is in the foothills of Mount Meru, very near Mount Kilimanjaro, so it is cool (anywhere between about 15 and 30 degrees Celsius when I was there) and lush – we were fed very well with lots of fresh fruit and veggies.

In terms of tips, my advice is the usual stuff to bear in mind when travelling – don’t make assumptions because things are often not what they seem. For example, while the culture is very traditional and patriarchal in many respects, the women I met were assertive and gutsy in their attitudes. They were amazing. They were all very industrious – usually running a small business making clothes or growing and selling veggies at the market – and very warm and funny. They often seemed (quite rightly) affronted when they realised they had more rights than they had been led to believe. They were also mostly fabulously adorned in beautifully sewn dresses made out of bright, patterned fabric with matching (or artfully clashing) swathes of material wound round their heads. Much more stylish than the volunteers!

Projects Abroad gives you lots of helpful advice and I felt well-supported on the programme. My main tip would be don’t forget to pack your sense of humour, and lots patience, humility and compassion. These go a long way in any culture.

Projects Abroad organises voluntary law & human rights placements in developing countries, such as South Africa and Ghana. To see more of their work, visit their website.

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